Seventeen today. It should be a birthday like no seventeen-year-old Chardonian girl ever had before. Waverly made a cake I actually get to eat, and father isn’t here to beat and hex his wrath on anyone. The dining room is crowded with my sisters, mother, and Waverly. The only warlock present is Zade, who’s nothing like father. But the spell which just zipped in the window, and floats in bold over the table for all to see ruined the perfect day.
Stephen’s daughter, take control of your property or we will do so for you.
Property meaning me. The words are glowing, bright and yellow with flecks of crimson, hovering above that perfect birthday cake. Waverly says that in Envado they have candles on cakes. Why they would do such a thing, I’m uncertain, but after this fiery display, it’s not something worth even attempting. It’s too much like the threat of a hex, burning hot, and ready to slam into me.
Zade zaps the spell with a flash of blue, but not quickly enough. Even the youngest girls know something is wrong. They hover together with their eyes wide. Even though they are only courting and not officially engaged still, Zade puts an arm around Serena as if it will protect her. A twist of longing aches in my chest for someone to care for me that much.
Though Serena may be feeling differently. Her chin is tilted up the way she does when she’s determined. She’s probably thinking on how to deal with this newest threat, but I’m doubtful it will solve the true problem. Me.
This birthday means I’m eligible to be sold to a warlock husband. Most girls don’t get tested for magic on their birthday, but they at least have plans to even if it’s a couple of years in the future. But the only plans here were cake and kindness. Obviously that didn’t work out so well. Living in a society where only warlocks control everything and only they do magic was bound to ruin my day no matter how much I wanted it to be different.
“The property is protected,” Zade says. “Nothing more than harmless threats can get in.”
Probably true, but the way it cracked the joy from us only moments ago—it’s not exactly harmless.
“Can we please return to enjoying the festivities?” Serena folds her arms like she’s trying to keep herself together.
I’d do the same if I thought it’d help. Instead, I thread my fingers through my necklaces, keeping a neutral expression tightly in place.
“Certainly.” Zade motions to Waverly. “Would you like to cut a slice for everyone?”
“I’d be happy to.” She bounces over to the cake.
“Zade and I will be in the study,” Serena says. “Please carry on and enjoy yourselves.”
The girls giggle happily now that the spelled words are gone and cake is coming, easily covering Zade and Serena’s exit. I wish I could so easily forget, but instead, I go on pretending as usual. Despite being adept at it, I rather despise it.
“What an exciting day.” The words are all too cheery spilling from my lips. “The only other time I’ve ever seen so many treats in one place was the tournament last year.”
“Did they make a cake as pretty as Waverly’s?” Sally asks.
I don’t even recall if they had cake. “No one could make a cake as pretty as Waverly’s.”
“Only because I cheat.” Waverly acts as if nothing has happened. She slides the first piece on a plate and passes it over to me. “Happy birthday!”
Her voice is a little too perky, but I chime back just as happily, “Thank you!”
Her smile becomes softer at the corners, less forced. At least my pretending appears to be good. Even if I’m faking my happiness, it’s still satisfying to boost another’s mood. The girls receive their treat, starting with the youngest.
Next, she serves mother, who’s gained quite the sweet tooth with this pregnancy. The last thing father left us before the Grand Chancellor took him in to custody was another sister to be born sometime in the next several months. Mother seems to be taking this pregnancy like all the rest, but I can’t help but wonder what will the baby’s life be like never having his cruel influence in it?
My bracelets jangle as I force myself away from such thoughts to eat some of the white cake with pink frosting. Any other day, the rich sweetness would be fantastic, just not now. Instead, it sticks to my mouth like a giant gob of honey, and my throat wants to clamp shut, refusing admittance to its passage. That’s just perfect.
I shovel in the bites regardless, not wanting to hurt Waverly’s feelings, and take a big swig of milk after each one. At least that’s easier to swallow. By the time I finish my slice of cake, my mouth and throat ache from forcing them. I never want to eat cake again. But it’s done, and I’ve pretended long enough to make a getaway.
“Thank you again, Waverly.” After pushing myself to my feet I say, “I’m going to wander around some.”
“Check to make sure that Serena knows we’re running low on sugar,” mother says, clueless as to my real intent. Probably due to exhaustion. This pregnancy seems to be harder on her than I remember the others being.
But Bethany, the third eldest sister, and Waverly aren’t as clueless.
“It will work out,” Waverly whispers as I brush past her.
Bethany gives me a look that says she knows exactly what I’m doing. Not that it matters. As long as the little girls aren’t worried, and mother’s content, I can do as I wish. It’s the first time my birthday has ever been celebrated, after all. Even if it’s no longer much of a celebration.
“I’m going to make certain it does,” I tell them.
I stride down the hall toward the front of the house, not bothering to knock when I reach the study. It’s a simple thing to nudge the door open. It may be wrong, but catching Serena and Zade making lovey eyes at each other sends a giddy thrill through me. They’ll both go red and start stammering, but won’t lose the happy glow that they must get from each other. My sister is finally happy. Only when the door creaks open this time, neither of them has a glow to lose.
Zade is pacing one side of the study while Serena is on the other, rigid in her chair and staring out the picture window. The painful knot in my stomach tightens as I move into the room. It’s worse than I feared.
I shut the door behind me and say, “I believe I should be included in this discussion.”
“Who says we are discussing anything?” Serena retorts.
“You said we were going to do birthdays different now that father is gone, and I could have things the way I want. Well, I want to know what’s going on. It’s about the latest threat, isn’t it?” Still neither says anything. “The threat was because of me. I deserve to know.”
Serena jumps to her feet. “It wasn’t because of you. It was because of me.”
“Clearly, I’m the one whose blood should be tested to see what warlock wants to buy me, so of course it’s because of me.” Anger bites my words more than I meant to let out. I clench my teeth to trap it back inside.
“There’s enough to fight out of this room, let’s not bring it in here,” Zade says before going to Serena. “She does have a right to know.”
She bunches her fist. “My freedom was supposed to enable us to make choices for ourselves, not keep us locked up and scared.”
“I know, but things take time. Hopefully, they’ll get used to the way things are with you now,” Zade says.
“But they aren’t getting used to it fast enough,” I say. “That’s the seventh threat we’ve had this week, and by far the most foreboding. Most hinted about my coming of age and being sold, of which we’ve had no intention of following their expectations. The only other thing we could do is return to class, and that isn’t an option. You remember what it was like. What they teach about women subjecting themselves to warlocks.” And how I spent most of the time convincing everyone class was right where I wanted to be. At least it kept us safe, like we need to be now. Too much danger haunts my family.
Serena collapses back into her chair and rubs her temple. “I know.”
The silence, thick with worries, doesn’t last long before the door opens and Bethany slips inside, closing the door behind her. “Mother wasn’t feeling well again and went upstairs to rest. Waverly’s taking care of the girls. What’s going on?”
“We’re discussing the threats,” Serena admits.
“Which are about me,” I add.
Serena glares at me. No matter that it upsets her; it’s all too true.
“What can we do?” Bethany asks. “It’s not like we’ll return to the ownership of a man.”
Unless the council somehow forces us to. The way things are going, it seems rather likely.
Serena says, “We’ll figure something out.”
“How much time do we have left to figure something out before these threats become more than just threats?” I ask, trying to keep my emotions from flying.
By the tightening of her mouth, I know I’ve hit onto the real problem. What started as us staying around the house out of uncertainty has become us being caged out of fear. The servants, or Zade, bring everything we need, and even they are cautious. Yet regardless of this, there are a few who have ventured to us, like Councilman Daniel and his wife Annabelle who helped Serena at the ball, but mostly we are avoided.
“We can figure something out.” But her repetitive words are as small as her voice.
“We can.” I hesitate a moment but not long enough to really let the fact of what I’ve been considering since the threats started coming I’m going to do sink in. “I will enter the marriage pool.”
Gasps sound from the girls, and Zade stares at me in shock.
Once she starts to breathe again, Serena says, “You can’t!”
“Are you going to stop me?”
Her lips press into a thin line. The command not to place myself for sale is right there, waiting to tumble from her. I can see it in her eyes, but it goes against everything she’s tried to do as owner master. As my master.
“No.” Her words come out harsh, but firm. “I won’t stop you as an owner. But as a sister, I’m pleading with you not to do this.” I open my mouth to reply, but she plunges on. “Please, please don’t do this. You know what they’re like. How they’ll treat you.”
“I’ve always enjoyed the company of warlocks more than you do.” Her face crumples against my words. My true words. Just not true for the reasons she suspects.
“Perhaps, but being owned by one isn’t what you want. I know it. You’ve reveled in the freedom more than any of the other girls. You’ve taken your own room with glee, enjoyed spending time alone and getting up in the middle of the night without repercussions. If you go back to being owned by a warlock, those are only a few of the things that will end. Much of your life will grow a great deal worse.”
Exactly what I’ve been trying not to think on. With those big, begging eyes, it would be so easy to give into her pleading, so I switch my gaze to the person in the room most likely to side with the safety of my family. Zade. “If I enter the marriage pool, do you think it will ease some of their fears? Do you think it will help show them that Serena can… handle her property?”
His eyes stay perfectly trained on mine, and I have to wonder if he’s struggling not to give into Serena’s pleading as well. “I can’t guarantee anything. You understand that, don’t you?”
He rubs the back of his neck. “It would probably go a long way toward helping. It would give those supporting us something to help prove that Serena isn’t different from other warlocks. It would show people she’s in control and willing to follow society’s ways, which is something hard to dispute and fight against. Though there will still be those that are unhappy just with the fact that she’s a woman.”
He moves closer to me. Most of the time I forget that as an Envadi how much taller he is than me but at a moment like this, with my neck tilted back to look up at him, every inch of his height is a stern reminder of the seriousness of the situation. “You know if you enter the marriage pool there will be little we can do to prevent your ownership by a warlock. From when I checked before, we know the magic in your blood is more potent than Serena’s, and there were many who tried for her hand. There will be many applicants, and she will have to choose one. I’m sure she will let you pick which one you’d like, but you’d still be giving your ownership back to a warlock.”
Even though I already know all this, somehow his statement rages through me more than Serena’s threats. But what will happen to my family if I don’t show compliance to society’s ways? It’s not something I want to dwell on. My mouth is dry, making my reply harder to get out than it should. “I understand.”
Serena moves next to Zade, somehow bearing down on me even more than he is, despite being my height. “Are you certain you do?”
I nod, even though the ever-growing desire to never have started this conversation builds. I almost wish I had never come to the study after them.
“They’ll not only use you as a breeder to make powerful warlock babies, but they’ll want the magic in your blood for themselves. It’s too strong for them not to.”
“And you still wish to do this?”
I push past the choking in my throat, letting my words come out clear and strong. “It will help our family. I’ll be happy to do my part.”
Serena wrenches me into a hug. “We can find another way.”
But we can’t, and even if we could, would we discover it in time to help? Doubtful. I pull out the facade I spent years wearing, the one I hoped I would never need to use again. “Don’t worry yourself over it. You know how I enjoy all the attention from warlocks.” About as much as I enjoyed punishments from father, but I give her my winning smile, as if it will be the best thing that has ever happened.
She scrutinizes my expression, probably looking for some hint I’m faking this all. But she won’t find it. Cracks don’t happen.
“Are you certain? Absolutely certain? There’ll be no changing your mind.”
“Of course I am. I’ll ready myself to go to the testing center.”
Her eyes grow wider. “Right now?”
“You heard Zade. We can’t let them doubt you any longer.”
She gives a jerk of a nod and with a voice calmer than I expected, says, “I’ll call the carriage.”
“Thank you,” I choke out, struggling to rein in the building frustration and loss so it doesn’t come screaming out.
I turn to hurry from the room, but Bethany stops me. Her eyes are bright with unshed tears. She gives my hand a squeeze, a silent show of support and longing, and then moves to clear the way.
I saunter through the hall, past the kitchen, toward the stairs like I have some happy purpose, trying desperately not to let myself race to my room as I wish. The younger girls call after me, but I can’t let myself do more than give them cheery hellos and hurry on. Vaguely, I hear Bethany saying something to them. She probably followed me out, anticipating such a thing. I step faster, up the previously forbidden stairs, down the empty hall, and into my room. My very own.
Serena was furious when she discovered there were enough rooms in father’s house for each of us girls to have her own, and still have extra rooms left over. If father were around, instead of in a prison somewhere, I’m sure she would have knocked him out with her gun again. I felt the same. After cramming together in a couple small rooms our whole lives, realizing there was more than enough room to spare sent us both into a fit. But even if it wasn’t a surprise, it was one more thing that we had no control over.
Apparently, there’s still much we have no control over, even when I try to pretend otherwise.
But now we each have our own rooms, and she was kind enough to let me pick the one I wanted first. The choice has made it much easier to keep secrets.
I close my door, working extra hard to have it make the slightest click when it latches and not to slam it. After it’s closed and locked, it doesn’t take long to secure my room. It’s almost without thought the motions come to me. Sally often likes to hide under my bed or in my closet which I double check for. Once I’m sure the room is clear of sisters, I draw the thick curtains, even though a tree thick with foliage is right outside my window, making it difficult to see in.
When I’m positive nothing that takes place in this room can be seen, I do one of the few good things I ever learned from father. I feel the power in me, the eager glow inside me flaring to life, yearning to respond to my will. I seize hold of it and launch it in a clear, save for a few crimson streaks, barely visible spell straight at my throat. It wraps around my voice just as I demand, blocking all sound. Then I scream.