This session of congenial plotting led to the arrival, the next morning, of a rather uninspiring young man at Sonia Kostka’s door. His clothing showed wealth, prestige, and taste, being a greek silk velvet that matched the green of his eyes and set off the red of his hair and beard. He was attended by a second, dressed in far simpler garb and bearing a stack of boxes.
Upon being shown into the parlor, the man in green bowed shallowly to Sonia and her mother, and said, “I am Aidan Mogen, fourteenth son of his Grace, and I have been sent by his duchess to bring these gifts, from one mother to another.”
Sonia’s eyes widened. “Fourteenth? How many of you are there?”
Nadya Kostka slapped her daughter’s hand with her lace fan, but Aidan showed no sign of shock or displeasure at the question. Most likely because he had heard it often. “I have four younger brothers at present, madam,” he said.
“And how many sisters?” Sonia asked.
Aidan blinked a few times, and a voice from behind the stack of boxes said, “Sixteen, sir.”
“So many?” Aidan said. “Well, there you have it.” The attendant set the boxes on the table before retreating to stand by the door, while Aidan proceeded to present to Mrs. Kostka a wealth of lace and silk.
“The Duchess is too kind,” Nadya said, draping a painted shawl around her shoulders. Her voice quavered with excitement.
“She is a great lady,” Aidan said. The attendant cleared his throat, and Aidan quickly added, “who is aware that His Grace is, at times, not the most, ah, polished. She hopes that there will yet be a chance for friendly relations between your families.”
“Her Grace needn’t worry,” Mrs. Kostka said. “We are all too aware of how great an honor has been done to us, in spite of the… irregularities in their occurrence.”
While she blushed and twittered, Sonia sat in silence, her hands knotted in her lap.
Perhaps sensing her discomfort, Aidan said, “Her Grace said that she hopes to come visit in person herself, and will bring her gifts for you at that time. She did not want to cause further disruption to your household by coming without proper notice.”
“That is thoughtful of her,” Sonia said. “And your brother?”
“My brother?” Aidan said, nonplussed. “Which one?”
Sonia took a deep breath before answering, “Whichever one I am to marry. I assume he is the eldest?”
“Oh no,” Aidan said. “He’s just the only one born on the right side of the… I mean. Ah. That is…” Aidan was turning an improbable shade of crimson before he finally stammered out, “I imagine he’ll be by at some point.”
After a few more moments of awkward conversation, Aidan took his leave. While her mother purred over her gifts, Sonia took the opportunity to slip out the door on the pretense of going to the market.
Sonia was a green witch. Her skills lay in herbs and gardens, in the power of things that took their lives from the earth and the sun. If she had been born in the countryside, she would have spent hours roaming the woods and fields. Her father’s business required that they live in Krakow, so instead she spent as many spare hours as she could in the University’s botanical gardens. It was there, as she walked down a long hedgerow, that she encountered a familiar face. Not that she could place it at first: the man was perhaps twenty-five, wearing a simple dark blue wool suit. His hair and beard were a coppery blonde, and his complexion was pale but slightly weathered. She paused mid step when she saw him, and might have kept walking if he hadn’t caught her looking and smiled in return. And then she was certain: it was the servant who had attended Aidan that morning. He had a warm smile, and a friendly one. At another time, perhaps it wouldn’t have captured her. But it did, so she held her ground as he came towards her and bowed slightly.
“You’ve the afternoon off?” Sonia asked.
The man smiled again and said, “It appears I have. I had heard of these gardens before, and thought to visit.”
“You’ve chosen well,” she said. “And a good day for it.”
“May I walk with you?” he asked.
Sonia hesitated. Then she reasoned that as he was in her future household, she would not be violating propriety by accepting his company. Moreover, she might have a chance to learn something.
“All right,” she said. “But you must tell me your name, since we were not introduced.”
Again he bowed slightly. “You can call me Sulien.”
She cocked her head at the way he had phrased this. “You’re a mage,” she said.
“You’re clever,” he said.
“No,” she said, blushing slightly. “I’ve just never heard anyone but a mage say that at an introduction. Father does business in many worlds. You notice the differences after a while.”
They walked on together and she said, “You must tell me more of the Duke’s household. I’ve only heard stories, and those…” She almost said they couldn’t be true, but she had begun to wonder about that.
“Some of it is true,” he said, as if she had indeed finished the question. “Some of it is rumor, some of it His Grace probably invented himself.”
“He really has so many children?” Sonia asked before she could stop herself. It was indelicate, to say the least.
Sulien laughed. “Yes. The wish has often been expressed that he would take a less… hands-on approach to international diplomacy.”
It was Sonia’s turn to give a shocked laugh. “Is it… like that, there?”
“Like what?” He asked, managing a straight face.
“Is that… expected behavior?”
“Only if you’re the Duke,” said Sulien.
“His poor wife,” Sonia said.
“She is to pitied in her choice of husband,” Sulien admitted. “But she chose. And now she rules at Hjelm like a queen. She indulges her husband where she must, and in turn she is one of the most powerful women in our world.”
Sonia nodded, thoughtful, then grew grave. Was this expected of her as well?
Sensing her discomfort, and perhaps even its cause, Sulien directed her attention back to the gardens. “I hear the herb beds here are extraordinary.”
She brightened at that, and walked him down the rows that served the medical faculty at the University. Then she showed him the newest orchid exhibit, and would have given him the grand tour if the 3 o’clock bells hadn’t begun to ring. They made their polite goodbyes and went their separate ways.
Sonia did not know it at the time, but this set the pattern for her next several days. She met a handful of Beorn Mogen’s sons as they came bearing gifts of every description, for her, her mother, her father… Even little Josef received an enchanted set of tin soldiers that would march in formation and fire volleys of red sparks and white smoke on command. Sulien sat on the floor with the boy and helped him marshal his first battle while Philippe told Mr. Kostka about the Mogens’ trade relations with France.
“This is the strangest courtship I have ever heard of,” she told her mother.
“What was that, dear?” Nadya replied, not even looking away from the string of pearls she was holding up to the light.
They came every other morning at ten. She would sit with them for an hour as they made conversation, she would eat lunch with her brother, and then she would slip out to meet Sulien. The day of the second visit, she thought it was a coincidence that she ran into him at the gardens again. It was her favorite place in the city, after all, and it made sense to her that he would visit again as well. Especially since Hjelm, where he lived, was locked in ice so much of the year.
The morning of the third visit, she found herself saying as Liam Mogen departed, “I think I will haunt the bookshops this afternoon. The one two streets over is particularly fine, and has a back room of magical texts for our people.” She knew what she was doing even as she said it. She still felt a startled delight when she entered the shop off the old market square to find Sulien perusing the shelves.
“You found it,” she said, not bothering to restrain a playful smile.
“I promised to bring home a few things,” he said, and after they perused a while he asked, “Do they carry volumes in English?”
“I imagine so,” she said.
As she showed him the international section, he said, “It’s for my mother.”
“Is she English too, then?” Sonia asked, remembering that the Duchess was raised in London. “How did she end up so far from home?”
Sulien blinked a few times and colored slightly. “Several ladies came when Her Grace was married,” he said.
Ah, Sonia thought. She had not missed a resemblance between her friend and the other men that had marched through her home of late. Given Beorn’s wide-ranging tastes she was saddened but not surprised that he had turned his eye to one of his wife’s ladies in waiting. It was also no surprise that the topic made Sulien uncomfortable.
“You should bring her some krusczyki too,” she said. “The bakery across the street makes the best in the city.”
He smiled in relief at that, and after he had bought a book by someone named Dickens they had laughed together over strong coffee and pastries coated in powdered sugar.
It was so easy for her to fall in love with this gentle man. As easy as his laugh, or the speed with which he could put her at ease. She showed him her favorite places in Krakow, and he told her funny stories about life in Hjelm, among so many strange peoples.
It was so easy for her to fall in love with him that she didn’t realize she had fallen until she came to the sudden, sharp stop at the bottom. That being, of course, the truth of her situation. It came during Philippe’s next visit: she was only half listening to him while sneaking glances at Sulien when she heard her mother say, “Of course, June is too soon, even if midsummer is traditional. I’m sure the Duchess will agree.”
Sonia blinked. “Too soon for what, Mother?”
Her mother had laughed. “For the wedding, of course.”
Her stomach plummeted. “Of course,” she said.
The rest of the visit was an agony. She tried to smile and listen to conversation, but she felt like a ghost. She had let herself forget what the purpose of this courtship by proxy was, because she had let herself look forward to each visit.
Because each visit brought Sulien.
The courtship itself had been successful. But she had fallen for the wrong man.
That afternoon she did not go to the gardens. She did not go to the marketplace, or on one of her long walks. Instead she sat in her room, stared at the cursed window where this had all started, and despaired. When Beorn had proposed in lieu of the son she had never met, she had responded, “when the willow grows grapes”, her mother’s favorite expression. She laughed now, bitterly, to think that she had even pretended that she had a say in the matter. Gifts could be returned, but with a glimpse of such wealth her parents would not be so easily persuaded. And Sulien? He spoke so often of how much he loved his home. His mother lived at court in Hjelm. What future was there, then? And as soon as she asked herself that question, a terrible thought occurred to her. What if Sulien had courted her, like all the other visitors, not for himself but for his master? He had never brought gifts of his own, never spoken of any subject that could be considered forward. As the hour grew later she convinced herself that even his friendship was likely intended to help persuade her to the marriage her parents wished.
She did not judge him harshly for it: rather, ￼she castigated herself for romantic foolishness. She was too sensible for hysterics but not too weary for tears, so she allowed herself one night of falling asleep with a sodden pillow and sniffing nose. She fell into a sleep that was so deep that she did not wake when Josef crawled into bed beside her.
Had she not been so exhausted, she would have known all was not well long before morning. Instead, she woke soon after the sun wondering why she had sweated through her night shift. Her head pounded and she thought she might be ill, until she discovered that the searing heat she felt came not from herself but from her little brother.
By late morning the situation was worsening. Josef had a red rash and slept fitfully, tossing in his sleep. His nursemaid shook her head. “Scarlet fever,” she whispered to Sonia. “I’ve seen it before.”
Of course she had. Sonia had it herself when she was a child and had very nearly died, a fact that would still lead to near fainting spells in her mother when the subject was broached.
“Don’t say anything to Mama yet,” said Sonia. “I’ll fetch the doctor. Best we know for sure before we worry her more than we must.” And, Sonia thought, the doctor could give her mother a tonic as soon as he had delivered the news. She threw a dress on quickly, tied a scarf over hair that was still down in its night braids, and opened the front door just in time to find Malik and Sulien standing on the front step, preparing to knock. They were both laughing, but their laughter faded as soon as they saw Sonia’s face.
She looked from one man to the other and said, “I… we… ” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “We aren’t able to receive today. We have an illness in the house.” As their faces grew serious, a lump started to form in Sonia’s throat. “I was just about to go for the doctor…”
She looked at Sulien. “It’s Josef.”
Then her mother began to scream. They were not hysterical shrieks but cries of genuine terror, and while Sonia stood frozen Sulien pushed past her and up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. Sonia regained herself quickly and was right behind him, and when they reached Josef’s room the cause of her fright was apparent. Josef’s eyes were closed, but his back was arched and his body shook with convulsions. Nadya stood back, her hands clasped over her mouth, while the nursemaid tried to restrain him.
Sulien shucked off his jacket and tossed it aside and went to the bedside. Rolling up his sleeves he asked, “Has this happened before?”
“No,” Sonia said, “never.”
“Good,” said Sulien. “It’s likely the fever, then.” As the boy’s limbs relaxed, Sulien felt his forehead, frowning. “I can bring the fever down, for now, but that will only help temporarily. Malik,” he said to the man who was now looking on from the doorway, “Go back to the residence. Bring back Karin, and tell her we won’t be back tonight.”
Malik nodded and gave a half bow before he left the room. Sulien said, “Karin is one of our best healers. In the meantime, I need willow and feverfew, if you have it.” He looked quickly at Mrs. Kostka and away and added, “And possibly some brandy.”
The nursemaid took the hint and said, “I’ll see to your mother, dear. You’re the one with the hand for herbs.”
So while nurse looked after Nadya, Sonia went down to the stillroom. It had not officially been her domain, but she spent long hours here when the weather didn’t permit outside excursions, seeing to enhancing and preserving the hundred or so remedies and preparations the household kept on hand for use. She could not heal directly: she had neither the training nor the talent for it. But she could charm the herbs they used for simples, strengthening tinctures and infusions into more potent medicines. Now she grabbed the preparations Sulien had asked for, and carried them back upstairs.
There, Sulien sat at the head of Josef’s bed. His eyes where closed doors he sang softly in a language Sonia did not recognize. His hands were cupped over the boys head, and while she couldn’t see any change in Josef yet the rising magic in the room made her fingertips tingle and the hair on her arms stand up.
When he finished his song Sulien looked up and gestured her over to sit next to him. “He is sleeping now, rather than swooning. When Karin arrives, she’ll know the best course to follow.” Then he frowned, and his eyebrows knit together. Sonia’s stomach dropped, and she was certain he was going to deliver some dire news about her little brother.
Instead, he said in a halting voice, “Before she is here, we must…”
But he never got the chance to finish. The door opened, and an older woman swept in. Sulien jumped to his feet as Malik followed in her wake.
The older man’s face was apologetic as he said, “I tried to tell Her Grace that this was unnecessary…”
As his words sank in Sonia rose as well and dropped into an awkward curtsy as she tried to look the duchess over. Catherine’s dress was a rich blue-grey silk, but was simply and cleanly cut with few ruffles and little adornment. Her silver hair was similarly braided and wound in a style that was both beautiful and sensible, and her face was stern but soft around the edges, as if the smile lines around her eyes counterbalanced the frown and worry lines that crisscrossed her brows.
She took Sonia by the hands. “None of that now, dear, although I’m sorry you meet you under these circumstances. Although,” she said with an edge that might have been either humor or annoyance, “we do go on as the matter was begun.”
Sulien shifted awkwardly. “I thought Karin would be…”
“Karin is an excellent healer, among many skills,” said Catherine. “She is also young. Whereas I, thanks to your father, have been through eight rounds of scarlet fever.”
She turned her attention to Sulien then, leaning up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “You didn’t break the fever?” she said.
“No,” he answered. “Just cooled it enough to stop the seizures.”
She nodded. “Good. Now go find the maid to bring us tea.”
He hesitated for a moment, looking from the Duchess to Sonia and back again before nodding.
Catherine inspected Josef herself then, feeling his face first and then taking his pulse.
“What do you know of healing?” she asked Sonia.
“Little,” the girl said. “My strength is in herbcraft, and mother…”
“Let me guess. Your mother thinks it either menial or too challenging for a woman, or both,” Catherine said. When Sonia only blushed she went on, “We can only heal what we can understand, which is why every great house has a maid who can run the still room as well as knit a bone. And it’s why any more than that requires a great deal of study. Do you know why we must not break the fever?”
Sonia blinked. What was it with this family? Did they all simply begin everything midstream? “No, your grace…”
“It is Catherine dear. Dag calls me Mother, my husband calls me the Harridan and neither of those will suit you. I hope. Now, my grandmother taught me when I was a child that fire purifies the blood of illness. Our current healer would tell you that a fever fires the body to sweat out a miasma. In either case, by the time scarlet fever has taken hold it must be driven out before the fever can be brought down. Otherwise it turns into blood poisoning.”
“It did with me, when I was a child,” Sonia said. “It’s why my mother is so distraught now.”
“Never treat the outward signs first, unless it is bleeding,” said Catherine. “The boy is young, and strong, and when my son returns with our tea we will begin a singing to drive the illness off.”
Sonia blinked rapidly, her mind wheeling inside her head like an overwound clock. “Your son,” she said. “Yes.”
The duchess gave her a strange look but, perhaps sensing her distress, said nothing.
The three of them worked together until late into the night, past the sundown crisis and another spike in the fever and past fitful dreams, until the boy’s forehead was cool and he was in back into a deep cool sleep. Catherine stroked the boys hair back and smiled down.
“All should be well, now. I will check back tomorrow, but the danger is past. We haven’t had to sing him back again, and I don’t think we will.”
She kissed the top of Sonia’s head, picked up her shawl and left, walking heavily but without concern.
Sonia sagged against the bed, resting her elbows on the quilt and letting her head drop. She was beyond exhausted, in every way she could conceive.
Her friend was silent until Sonia sat back up. He looked at her with concern, and she couldn’t resolve within herself how she felt in that moment. She was grateful. She pitied the dark shadows under his eyes. And she wanted to shake him.
“You must have… many questions,” he said.
“Only one,” she replied. With a calm that was born more from that exhaustion than from any real equanimity she asked, “What is your name?”
One corner of his mouth twitched up wryly. “Dag,” he said. “Dag Mogen. And yes, the Duchess is my mother.”
“Yes, she told me,” Sonia said. Dag looked as if he were about to speak, but she cut him off, saying “I will sleep now.”
He frowned, but did not argue. Instead he rose as well, collected his coat, and left.
After that, she sank into a deep sleep of her own. The next two days, however, gave her far too much opportunity to think. Josef recovered quickly, although he was content to rest in his bed under his nursemaid’s care. The only visitor was the Duchess Catherine, and she came and went with a quick efficiency. So Sonia was left pondering just what had happened around her over the previous weeks.
That was what it was, after all. It had not happened to her. It had happened around her. She had become a bystander in a series of events that would dictate the rest of her life.
It infuriated her.
She was furious.
So much so that she wilted two orchids and her favorite African violet, which in turn meant that she could not walk in the botanical gardens.
This did not help her mood.
And Sulien – Dag – had not come back to face her, either. She wanted to scream at him. To continue her pattern of hurling chamberpots at the men in his family. She wanted to ask him why he had deceived her. She wanted to tell him she didn’t care why, she had no intention of speaking to him ever again.
She wanted to see him. She wanted to go back before she had learned who he was and spend another afternoon book hunting with him. She wanted to understand why someone she had trusted so easily had been lying to her all along.
She was so angry that when a young woman came to the door and introduced herself as Karin, Sonia was able to completely set aside her usual shyness. She grabbed a shawl and threw it over her shoulders in a quick motion, linked arms with the girl and said, “My brother is fine, please take me to your master.”
Karin blinked. She was a very young woman, sweet faced and wide eyed. “I don’t… I’m not sure…”
“You’re all getting here somehow. Let’s go then.”
Karin gulped, led her around the corner to an otherwise uninteresting shop door, and then hesitated. “It can make you a bit dizzy, the first few times.”
Sonia just nodded and tightened her grip on Karin’s elbow slightly. Karin opened the door to an empty room, stepped over the threshold, and…
After a stomach plunging moment in which light and sound swirled around her and then came to a sudden stop, it deposited Sonia in what looked to be a long hallway, remarkable only in the number of doors it held.
“This way, ma’am,” Karin said. She chewed her lip as she led her down the hall and out into the main corridor.
It was not what Sonia had expected. The residence was light and airy, with tall ceilings and windows that stretched the height of the walls. The floors were a pearly grey marble, and the curtains a green and gold silk.
She tried not to gape around her as Karin led her to a small sitting room where Dag sat with his mother. His eyes widened when he saw them, and he stood up quickly. But Catherine gave a smile that was nearly feline, and while it appeared wry Sonia couldn’t help but feel approval in it.
Karin spoke first, bobbing a curtsy and she did so. “Your grace, the lady wished me to… that is, she asked…”
“You did well,” Catherine said. “It’s far past time Sonia saw our home.” She set her book aside and rose, saying, “Karin, I need you down in my office. Sonia, have my son bring you there as well after you’ve soundly boxed his ears.”
Sonia made a quick curtsy in response, more to hide her own burning cheeks than out of any sense of protocol.
Once she was gone, Dag sighed. “You are angry,” he said. It was not even an observation, merely a statement fact uttered with a total resignation as to both its veracity and deservedness.
Sonia took a deep breath in, and held it. She felt as if there were a block in her throat, something that held her words back. Finally she closed her eyes and began to speak as if she were jumping off a cliff, starting only with a great force of will but hurtling on with little control.
“Angry, yes. Just angry would be easy. I am angry. At you, at your drunken boar of a father, at MY father, who bartered me off and was thrilled to get a good price with no bargaining, at my mother, who didn’t even suggest asking me first, and at the whole world, which seems to think this is a perfectly reasonable way to do things. And if that was everything it would be fine, I think. I could figure it out. But no, that’s not everything, is it?”
She shook a finger at him. “You. You lied to me about who you were, and don’t try and pull the elves’ trick and say you never said anything so it’s not really a lie. It was, and it was all part of playing along with his game. And if I could even just be angry at that I could lock myself in my room with a store of crockery to throw at anyone who tried to come in. It wouldn’t hurt. But this does hurt. Because you lied to me. And I trusted you. I liked you. And worst of all I started to love you. And then I thought, this is hell. I will have to marry some idiot ten times stupider than Aidan because he must be or they wouldn’t let Aidan out to try and charm me…”
Dag choked a laugh back. “He’s not so terrible once…”
“Don’t you dare try to be funny right now. He’s insipid. And I thought I would have to live with someone just like him, and keep seeing you every day. It was breaking my heart. And now, it was you the whole time. And do you have any idea how stupid I feel? I feel stupid, and gullible, and hurt, and angry, and I still love you, and it’s awful.”
At that last, she burst into tears. She dropped into the nearest chair, put her hands over her eyes, and sobbed. It was a brief storm, though, and a short minute had her wiping her cheeks furiously with the backs of her hands. Dag knelt in front of her then.
“Did you mean that last part?” he asked, and then smiled radiantly when she nodded. “That’s something then.”
He handed her his handkerchief, and then pulled her into his lap, tucking her head under his chin. He held her for some time, then said finally, “I am sorry.”
“You should be,” she said, her words muffled by his chest.
“Yes, I should. You’ve been treated abominably by everyone, myself included.”
Sonia sat up. “Your mother is quite lovely.”
Dag nodded seriously. “She is. And is often the only one around here with any sense.”
“Why did you do it?” she asked.
He frowned. “I knew my father wished me to marry soon. Still, it was a complete shock when he came home and told me it had all been arranged. That isn’t… even by our standards, it shouldn’t work like that. My father…” He took a deep breath. “Beorn is a great man. But he is not a good man, and he can make life miserable when he sees fit. If I had refused you, sight unseen, he would have done just that. And while he is not a good man, and certainly not a good father, he is not… uncaring.”
Dag had a way of speaking, and Sonia could tell both from the way that he picked through his words carefully and the tone with which he uttered him that there was a great deal more there to be said.
“He may have chosen hastily, but he would not choose carelessly. I wanted to meet you. But knowing the kind of impression Beorn makes…” Sonia snorted, and Dag grimaced in agreement, “I hoped to meet you without his shadow hanging over us. As much as possible, anyway. I thought I would go with Aidan that first time, meet you, and if we didn’t suit I would find a way to convince my father to not go forward with the engagement. Instead…”
He reached up and cupped her face in his palm. “That is still true. If you do not want this marriage, it will not happen. I will find a way to put him off it. But I have come to hope that you will have me, in spite of… everything.”
The tears spilled out of her eyes as she nodded, and then said, “Yes, I will.”
He grinned again, and kissed her, and it was some time before they found their way down to the Duchess to tell her that the plans for a wedding could, after all, move forward.
This wedding happened the following spring. The mutual affection of the couple was visible to all, and Sonia jested more than once that what begins badly can only improve greatly. Beorn preened greatly about his excellent judgement, Nadya Kostka preened greatly at her good fortunes, and the Countess rolled her eyes at both of them and kept her own role in the matchmaking to herself. Secrets well kept were, she found, far more delicious than the momentary joy of gloating. Regardless of its origins, the ceremony was beautiful, the feast was bountiful, the bride and groom were blissful, and what began with disaster found a new beginning in great joy.
Did they live happily ever after?
The happiness of any story depends, I think, on where you choose to end the telling. So let us end here, with one brief note of epilogue. Upon her installation at Hjelm, Sonia discovered that her husband had gifted her with a garden of her own to cultivate at will. The first planting was a willow tree which, you will not be surprised to learn, bears the shocking trait of putting forth fruit every autumn. Through Sonia’s spellwork, even today, the willow bears a crop of sweet red grapes.