Saturday, September 4. Iris Academy, Horse Hall.
Everything changed today.
I managed to wake up and sneak out of the room a little before 5am. Ellen was snoring a little, which helped cover any sounds; neither she nor Virginia appreciates being woken up at this hour. No one does.
As outgoing treasurer, I should have only a few more weeks of getting up early before the new sophomore officers are elected. However, the Professor hinted that it would be nice to work with someone as mature and responsible as myself again. I do want him to approve of me, but ... do I want it enough to see the sun rise over Horse Hall every Saturday for the next year? I was seriously doubting it this morning as I yawned my way across the quad to the mail room.
The door was already open, which was unusual. Good thing I was on time today. "Good morning!" I said brightly to Iris Academy's official terror-of-undergraduates-in-residence, and bounced over to the mail bin.
He was standing there reading a letter intently, hunched over a little into his robes and with the big floppy wizard hat pulled farther down than usual. I wondered if he was cold. He didn't bother to look up or acknowledge me at all; I shrugged and got on with sorting. Not too much mail this week, so near to the start of the term, mostly just the allowance that has to be delivered to every single student. As freshman treasurer, I have to come in the earliest and do all the prep work, besides the deliveries to students in my year. Cash into envelopes, numbered and noted in the ledger and then sorted by hall: Horse, Snake, Butterfly, Falcon, Wolf, Toad. (I still wonder who picked those names.)
By the time everything was stacked up and ready to go, I still hadn't heard the Professor make a sound. I looked over at him again before hoisting the mailbag onto my shoulders. He didn't seem to have turned any pages. He was just clutching the letter in both hands and staring down at it as though focused beams of magic could shoot out of his eyes and vaporize the paper.
I put down the mailbag. "Is something wrong?" I heard myself say inanely. No answer. After a moment I said very tentatively, "...Hieronymous?" Which marked the second time I'd ever used his first name; I technically had permission, but it just seemed so weird.
That got his attention. For a second I thought his glare was going to vaporize me; then he slapped the letter down on the counter and shoved it in my direction.
"Read it. And may your vaunted maturity help you." His tone was as venomous as though he'd caught me cheating. For another moment he looked me over, top to toe, while I stood frozen to the spot. Then he turned away with a snort of disgust and swept out of the room, leaving the door open. A few seconds later it slammed itself shut so forcefully the wall shook.
What on earth?
Quickly I ran to the door and tried the handle. No, he hadn't locked me in. Was he angry at me, or at the letter? Or because he had to let me read the letter?
Curiously, I picked up the small stack of pages and looked at the topmost one. Handwritten, closely spaced, with beautiful interlocking curlicues. Wizards' handwriting. (Not that wizards practice their penmanship, they just use blue magic to cheat.) The letter was addressed not to Professor Grabiner but to Lord Such-and-Such Hieronymous Grabiner, followed by a long string of titles. There was an official-looking seal pressed into the top; I traced around the ridges with a finger, and felt a faint tingle of magic.
So this had something to do with his family. That explained why I was supposed to read it. Better to get the delivery run out of the way first, though. I folded up the letter and stuck it in an inside pocket of my robe. The Professor had left the envelope lying on the floor, so I grabbed that too and then swung the bag over my shoulders. I had forty-one dorm rooms to visit before finding out what was causing my husband's latest foul mood.
I suppose I'd better explain about the husband thing. Just in case someone reads this diary a hundred years from now and decides to turn my memoirs into a romantic bestseller or an award-winning movie. If that someone is you, please cast someone beautiful to play me, an actress with lots of cleavage and a nicely shaped nose. Thank you for considering the wishes of your subject.
Last year, on a Saturday much like this one, the mature and responsible freshman Treasurer opened the door of the mail room to find Professor Grabiner lying unconscious in a pentagram, with a big clawed blue demon attacking him. She maturely and responsibly ran straight in to help.
Yes, this was stupid. I know better now. But I hadn't had any of those classes at the time! The Professor, it turned out, was (mostly) protected because the demon was bound to serve his family. I wasn't. The thing was about to eat me for real when Professor Potsdam arrived. She saved me by doing the only thing that would make me off-limits for lunch - she told the demon I was about to become part of the Grabiner family. And when he came to, Professor Grabiner agreed.
Only it wasn't just a story. A wizard's word is binding, both of them told me, and to break it has terrible consequences. And so within hours, Professer Grabiner and I were standing at the altar becoming the least happy couple ever. We were bound for a year and a day, which means until just before the end of January next year.
Everything was secret, of course, but you can't keep a secret for too long at a small school like this one. My social life fizzled out faster than my first spells. Nobody dares harass me for fear of my terrible husband, but most people don't really want to hang out with me either. Even my friends find it weird and uncomfortable. And nothing stops the whispers and giggles, the clever remarks about how I must earn my grades, the really obscene limerick that's still making the rounds...I don't think the Professor knows about that, and I'm not going to tell him. He'd put the whole school in detention and then everyone would really hate me.
It's awful. The only good thing about the situation was that the Professor and I got to actually be friends, sort of. He's much more interesting and nicer inside than he lets on to anyone. And once he realized I wasn't going to gossip about him or try to get any favors, he calmed down a lot. Until this morning.
Anyway. It seemed to take forever, but finally even the third-floor turret room of Toad Hall had its envelopes delivered. I sat down next to the statue of Mr. Toad in his car halfway down the front steps (old senior project) and patted his head for luck before unfolding the letter. Thick paper (parchment?) with slightly rough edges, the sort of fancy handmade paper people only use for wedding invitations nowadays. But this didn't look like an invitation.
"Being agreed upon by the assembled Committee..." My eyes were starting to glaze over before the end of the very first sentence. This was all legalese. British wizard-type legalese. I had approximately zero chance of understanding what it said. Looking at each page in turn, I skimmed for phrases that would at least give me a clue.
Third paragraph down, "consummate". There was a lot more, four pages worth, and I don't remember a word of it except that "heir carried to term" was in there somewhere. The words didn't make any sense no matter how many times I read the third paragraph, and over the roaring noise in my ears a slightly hysterical inner voice kept saying over and over that nobody uses that word outside of romance novels, and maybe I was just misreading the English term for soup?
Stop it, I told myself sternly. Crying won't help, and any minute now somebody will come by and stare. I folded the letter back into its envelope and stood up. This situation called for calm, sensible feminine advice from someone who I had never seen be shocked or at a loss. The headmistress, Professor Potsdam, would know what to do.
"Oh, dear. I'm afraid we must take this very seriously," she said eventually. Not the reaction I had been hoping for.
"But why does anyone care?", I wailed. "This is the twenty-first century! It doesn't matter if anyone has an heir or not!" Or only to the Professor's father, it occurred to me. But if the one letter I'd seen from him was anything to go by, this wasn't his style.
"That's just it, dear," she replied. The envelope and the pages of the letter were spread out across her desk. Each one had been examined with Detect Charm and Inspection spells; the only magic had turned out to be in the seal, which would notify the sender when the letter was first opened. "No one does care. The laws are still on the books, but never enforced, any more than laws about horse and buggy traffic would be. The only reason for someone to bring a challenge like this nowadays against a nonpolitical marriage contract would be if they knew about your particular situation."
"If they know, then they know there's perfectly good reasons why...why not," I retorted. "Can't the Professor just explain to the committee? Or stall them till the end of January? Isn't this what lawyers are for?"
"Yes, it is." The headmistress reached out a hand in the direction of the bookshelf by the window, and a dictionary-sized tome slid itself off the bottom shelf and floated up to her grasp. "Let me just look up..." The pages riffled around and then stopped. "One moment, my dear."
One moment became a minute, and then five minutes. I glanced guiltily at the cup of coffee and pastry sitting on the edge of the desk. She'd had been eating breakfast when I barged in, and she wasn't going to get to finish it before her Saturday seminar. But still... "Then what's the problem?" I blurted finally.
She looked up at me a little sadly, as though I had flubbed an elementary lesson. "Stop and think about it from a different perspective for a moment. Someone in the Rooks -"
"The wizard parliament. Someone brought this motion so that the validity of Hieronymous's marriage will be debated in committee, no doubt with embarrassing details. Of course this infuriates him, and I've no doubt it serves to score some points against his father, but it truly harms neither of you. A counter-motion will be filed, everyone will enjoy the scandalous gossip for a season, and then the term of your marriage will be over."
My ears felt hot just thinking about it. A whole room of important wizards talking about me and my ignorant mistake. And him saving me. And what we were and weren't doing.
And his And things about his past that I'm not going to write down even here because he'd kill me. No, that's not it. Because privacy matters so much to him.
He must wish we'd never met. That a stupid wildseed girl from a nonmagical family had had the sense to stay nonmagical and not come to school and cause him trouble. Not truly harm us?
If Professor Potsdam noticed that I was now pissed off and trying to cry, she didn't show it. "Think, dear. Who stands to gain if your marriage is not dissolved but becomes legally questionable?"
Oh. Of course. "The demon. Is it allowed to show up and...claim me, somehow? But it only got into the school in the first place because it was summoned." There are so many wards around school grounds that if you're sensitive to them the air hums all the time. Zilla over in Snake Hall needs to wear magical earplugs or she gets migraines.
"Yes indeed, though I hope you are wise enough to never fling that in your husband's face." Her long pink-enameled nails drummed restlessly on the open book. "What concerns me is that it knows that. Manus are among the most intelligent and patient of demons, and they specialize in twisting the words of contracts. This one has been bound into service for six generations of the Grabiner family. It should not be able to conspire with their rivals. And yet, here this motion is. What does it hope to achieve?"
It occurred to me that even if the school was safe, I might not be able to leave ever again. And it might find a loophole. A six-generations-old demon wasn't likely to just get bored and give up anytime soon. She was right, this was serious. "So what should I do?"
"If there's anything you need to do off-campus, it would be best to take care of it today, and stay on the grounds from tomorrow until we can find a solution." There was a sudden loud twittering and chirping, as though a flock of Disney songbirds was hiding underneath the desk. "And now I have a seminar to get to. I'm not the person you should be talking to most right now, dear, am I?"
"Sorry!" I picked up the cup of coffee and concentrated on a quick heat spell. It worked this time and the cup didn't shatter, thank goodness. I handed it to her. "Here's your coffee, and thank you, and I'll get out of your hair now."
She smiled at me. "The two of you are very alike, you know. You're hiding down here imagining him being angry, and he's hiding up there, doubtless picturing you being sick with horror. One of you should show a bit of spine, don't you think?"
"Yes, ma'am," I said glumly.
It's not that I don't like him that way. He's old, but not old-man old, just grownup old. And Virginia says I'm crazy, but I think he has a nice face really. It's just that he's always scrunching it up to be mean and sarcastic and looking down his nose at people. If anyone else saw him in a good mood, I think they'd be surprised.
He kissed me once, on May Day, when I asked him to. And I may have thought about that once or twice, over the summer, and imagined coming back to school someday as a grown-up sophisticated college student with her own car and an understated but very flattering dress and intellectual theories to discuss. And enough money to take someone to the Glen. I'd know what all the dishes on the menu were and how to order wine and actually enjoy drinking it. That future person might be interested in another kiss. And other things.
But the me of now? Barely seventeen and with this in-name-only marriage as her entire romantic experience? Not ready yet.
But there I was standing outside the door to his rooms, trying to brace myself against whatever he might say. The letter was not my fault, I reminded myself. I didn't have to let him blame me for it. And this wasn't going to get any easier for waiting. I knocked.
After a long pause, I heard his voice. "Come in, then." The if you must was silent but perfectly audible.
I stepped in and turned to lock the door behind me, wishing I'd thought to bring tea so I'd have something to keep my hands busy. The Professor was standing in a far corner of the room, next to a table with a crystal decanter and glasses. His hat was off, and his shaggy mane of smoke-colored hair was all messed up and falling in his face. (Smoke-colored doesn't sound very nice, how can I describe it? Not regular gray, not black, but a soft dark gray with a tinge of blue. It reminds me of the smoke from a bonfire. ) He was staring at the glass in his hand. Suddenly he looked over at me in that way that makes you feel skewered and said sharply, "Well?"
The first words out of my mouth were not the ones I'd planned on. "You can get drunk to help deal with this, and I'm not allowed to. That's not fair."
I saw his mouth twitch a little, though he was trying to hold it still. "Age has still a few privileges even in this modern day." He put the glass down. "You have read the message."
"Yes, sir. I mean, Yes. I did."
"Did you understand it?"
Quiz time. I took a deep breath and reminded myself to be concise. "It's some kind of political attack using a stupid outdated law that gives that demon a way to claim our marriage is a fake, which might mean it gets to kill me and you lose your magic for breaking your word."
His expression didn't change. "And?"
"And...so we need to find a way to stop it?"
"I don't know!" I glared right back at him. "This is not my area of expertise, even if I had one which I don't because I'm just a sophomore! And you know that!" I hadn't meant to yell, but my voice just kept getting louder. "If you would like me to make an age-appropriate contribution I could burst into tears. Would that help?"
I stopped abruptly and squeezed my eyes shut, because suddenly I did feel like crying and it would be a terrible idea. Why does he have to make everything so hard?
I heard a sigh, right in front of me, and opened my eyes to find him standing close enough for a hug. He didn't though, just patted the top of my head awkwardly.
"Don't do that," he said. "You have already responded to a difficult situation better than might be expected. While I merely retreated, you sought information and allies, and now you have come to face me. That could hardly have been easy."
"Okay," I said, managing to only sniffle a little. He does always own up to being wrong, eventually.
"No doubt Petunia was forthcoming with suggestions and advice on managing me," he said dryly. "I suggest you abandon any such ideas at once. This is not a romantic melodrama."
I had to smile at that, a little. "No, she didn't really tell me anything. Just to grow a spine and go talk to you."
"Unjust." He actually smiled back down at me, a little. "Whatever shortcomings and mistakes you have demonstrated in your time here, a lack of courage has not been one of them." I would like to record that I met his eyes without blushing, but that would not be strictly true. They're not exactly brown, I never noticed before today. There's a little bit of red wine color to them. He probably has some nonhuman ancestry, a lot of the magical families do.
His expression went back to serious. "The law in question is not entirely antiquated. Marriage is an important part of some magical rituals, as well as being used to seal alliances between families. If the participants in the marriage do not take it seriously, it can taint whatever magic was performed and be a grave insult to all concerned. This would be legitimate grounds for a legal suit even today."
"What does taking it seriously mean?", I asked cautiously. "I thought we were doing that." Scrupulously. No dating, of course. I wasn't allowed to join the pancake supper last year because it had courting significance, and in class and on all the school paperwork I'm addressed as Mrs. Grabiner. Which is not fun, in case you were wondering.
"By modern definitions, we are. However, according to the oldest customs, which are still used for a few rituals, a marriage contract has not been completely observed until a child with the shared blood of all participants is born."
That didn't make sense. I frowned. "Does that mean all marriages are invalid unless and until there's a kid? That sounds just cruel. And impractical. And what does "all participants" mean?"
This time his smile was the usual evil one. "Consider yourself fortunate that this particular contract only involves the two of us."
"But to answer your question, no. In most cases the...symbolic actions of the spouses, as well as their demonstrated respect for one another, are considered sufficient. There is an entire branch of law devoted to this subject, which you need know nothing about."
My insides felt like they were trying to rearrange themselves. He'd said it, in a typically Grabiner way. This really was about sex. Symbolically? Or not? There was no way I could just ask ARE WE GOING TO but the question was so loud in my head it echoed.
Something must have shown on my face, because he stopped looking amused at my discomfort and patted my hair again. "I am not without resources in the legal or sorcerous realms. Neither is Petunia. We will both ensure that you are kept safe." He paused. "In fact, it may not be strictly necessary for you to be...aware of the situation any more than you are now. That might be easiest for you."
Um, what? "Are you suddenly telling me to run along and play?"
"Run along and study. And I am giving you the option."
I stared at him. "Even if I understood what you're talking about, I'm pretty sure the answer would still be no. I want to know what's going on, even if it's bad. Ignorance is not bliss, as you keep telling us in class. So please keep explaining."
"...As you wish." He took another step closer to me, bending down so our faces were close enough to kiss - and just stayed there. I could feel my cheeks getting hot.
"Of course this particular marriage contract has no purpose other than protecting your life. Not even the most senile or malicious members of what passes for the present governing assemblage would consider invalidating it. This is a feint, intended to make us jump - but in what direction? Until we know more, I must regretfully consider the traditional alternatives available to unwilling participants in arranged marriages."
His lovely dark English voice had gone as coldly disinterested as it had been the day he suggested I forfeit my campaign for class treasurer and save him the bother. His eyes were equally cold, and yet we could feel each other's breath. He was doing this just to unnerve me, damn him. I raised my chin, bringing our faces even closer. "Those being?" I asked in my Attentive Student voice.
It didn't work; he didn't draw back at all. "Option one," he breathed, "would be to make you pregnant as quickly as possible with the aid of magic, making our marriage unassailably valid by any possible definition. The decision of what to do after the severance would then be yours."
I tried to pull back, but he caught my chin and held me in place. "Option two," he said to my mouth, "to put it bluntly, is for me to fuck you on a reasonably frequent basis for the next several months, leaving a pregnancy up to chance. Do you have a preference, Mrs. Grabiner?"
I wrenched my face away, and this time he let me. Stop shaking, I told myself. He wants you to shake and cry and obey. So don't. But I couldn't speak for a minute, and then my voice came out all wobbly: "Just t-tell me what you're trying to scare me into doing. What do you want me to do?"
"Look at me." I looked up from the floor, startled, and then I was being shaken by the shoulders. "There are sleep and memory spells created specifically to make this situation slightly less unpleasant. You will not be aware of anything that happens between us. " His fingers dug in painfully, like talons. "You may at your own discretion choose to forget this conversation, and later, the entire existence of our marriage. Do you understand?"
"Stop shaking me!" He stopped. "You want...like Sleeping Beauty." Only more so. A lot more so.
"Essentially correct, though you flatter yourself."
Oh that was low. He was going to pay for that. The rush of anger helped me stop shaking and look him in the eyes again. "No. I won't let you."
"Idiot girl!" His grip hurt, a lot. "Do you understand the position you are in?"
"I understand that neither of us wants me to be six months pregnant at the end of January. I understand that you will not cast any spells to make me sleep or forget without my permission, which you do not have. Or you wouldn't be yelling at me." I pulled at his hands, trying vainly to tug them off. "Let go of me!"
He did. We stared at each other for a while. I think he wanted to slap me about as much as I wanted to slap him, probably. "You can't bully me into changing my mind," I said finally. "This is my body and I get to know what happens to it. No matter how horrible you are."
"Then go away, little girl," he said through his teeth, "and consider your options. Return after lights out. If I have to fetch you, you won't like it."
I tried to think of a suitably nasty parting shot, but nothing came to mind.
The door opened by itself, and I turned and ran through it. Of course it slammed behind me.
I sat down in the hallway and pulled my robes off each shoulder in turn, gingerly. Bruises and even a little moon-shaped welt. I rubbed my finger over each one, cast a spell, and watched as they shimmered and faded.
Well, that was scary. But not, strangely, as much as the first time. When the news of our marriage had first leaked out, the Professor assumed I was responsible. He'd thought I was gossiping about him, defying his authority, knowing that he couldn't divorce or expel me for my own safety.
That day had been terrifying. He'd threatened to lock me in the deepest dungeon of the school forever and erase everyone's memories so that no one would ever know I was gone. Later, while apologizing, he'd told me he thought fear was the only way to control me. It certainly would have worked back then, but it didn't work today. Maybe because he did apologize so honestly last year, laid out the mechanism of his trick like a stage magician for me to see, making me immune to the illusion in future.
Not that that makes it okay for him to hurt and scare me. Not that I'll ever do what he wants because of that. I meant what I said, I won't be a Sleeping Beauty - but even if I did want to, now I'd rather walk on broken glass and have my way like the Little Mermaid.
Shopping. I needed to go shopping. And not just because it might be my last trip to the mall until Thanksgiving break. Flatter myself, oh really.
And now it's ten-forty-eight pm and I've been writing this entry forever and rewriting bits and doodling in the margins, because I just can't study like this. Lights out is in twelve minutes. The clock is agonizingly slow and too fast at the same time.
My beautiful new frilly white nightgown is packed up with my toothbrush and lingerie and tomorrow's clothes and anything else I could think of. After dinner I took the most thorough shower of my entire life and blow-dried my hair and brushed it five hundred times and cut my nails.
Ellen looks worried. Virginia looks impatient. Both of them keep looking at the bag at the foot of my bed and then at me, but not saying anything. They're waiting for me to tell them what's going on, and they're not going to like it.
I don't feel very courageous. Well, maybe Ellen will let me use her sparkly nail polish for luck.