My blood will entice warlocks to ask for my hand in marriage, so of course Father wants it spilled. The sooner the magic within it is measured, the sooner he can sell me off. According to the laws of Chardonia, there’s no escaping it. For me that day has come.
From the way Father’s bulky frame lounges on the couch in the men’s waiting area as he casually smokes his pipe, one would think my testing doesn’t matter. I suppose it doesn’t, as long as I have enough magic to make him a beneficial connection. The greater the level of magic flowing in my veins, the better the marriage offer will be. And of course, whatever my owner wants, I must deliver. Only, I can’t control how much magic is in my blood.
I shift my weight trying not to think about things I can’t change, but it’s hard to think of anything else as I stand in the cramped women’s corner of the testing center. A soft tut sounds from mother. If anyone has reason to be uncomfortable in this cramped corner, it’s her. Eight months pregnant with sweat glistening through her white face paint, though the spring day is just beginning to warm. Too many other women are crowded about waiting with their daughters. Her eyes don’t lift to mine, instead staying properly focused on the ground. From the set of her mouth, the lecture about my fidgeting will come when we’re home. After I’ve brought her favorite food to help pacify her a bit.
Keeping my head bowed, I sneak another glance at the men. They’re carrying on like men do, with ample space to spread themselves across couches and chairs throughout the plush waiting room, lit by windows that don’t stretch to our side of the room. Father is smoking a pipe and motioning for a glass of wine as he laughs at something the warlock next to him has said. He must not have noticed my fidgeting. His ignorance of it will make it easier to appease mother during her lecture. But it’s hard to care about possibly getting out of punishment when this morning he demanded I come on the day of my eligibility instead of waiting a year or two like most.
There’s movement in the hall across, disrupting my thoughts. All of us girls waiting by our mothers strain forward. They must be as eager as I am to be the next one called. Not to be one step closer to marriage, but to be done with this place. In truth, I am probably the only one eager to be away from here. While the other girls are truly eager to wed and take the only role society allows them, I’ve had to force enthusiasm. The role of a warlock producer holds no appeal. It’s a role mother’s failed at—fourteen times—with me being her first mistake. I eye her rounded belly. Maybe this time will be different. Highly unlikely. Not that I’d ever admit it aloud. I’m a mistake enough without being wholly foolish.
Someone steps out of the hall. I lower my gaze to the wooden floor. Today is not a day for getting caught sneaking glances.
For once, I wish they’d call me by name. It’s not as if Serena is hard to say. I bunch my hands together, but quickly take a step forward, leaving mother and the others behind. Why did I want it to be my turn so desperately only a moment ago? My heart quivers as I near the hall, moving closer to the unknown. Keeping my strides steady, I fight the overwhelming desire to run. My request to Father this morning not to get tested was not only rejected, but my cheek still aches from the punishment delivered for asking. If I publicly defied Father, worse is sure to follow. Not only for me, but for my sisters.
By the time I get to the hall, the man is already striding away. I manage to keep pace with him, feet making barely a sound, head bowed. But each step is harder to take. Each movement taking me closer to the unknown and farther from what little freedom I have.
When he abruptly stops, a squeak of fear almost escapes me as I barely stop myself from running into him. He ushers me inside a tiny room with a grunt. A single wooden chair is the room’s only occupant. Otherwise its blank white walls are lit by the strange glow of a single electric blub.
He flips the light off and slams the door, leaving me in darkness. There’s no stopping the frightened squeak, but I am strong enough to keep myself from opening the door. Being left in the dark is one thing I hate about being a woman. I never wish I had been born a boy more than when I’m left in the dark. Boys are never left alone in the dark. And certainly not for days. At least this time it shouldn’t be that long. They wouldn’t want to keep Father waiting.
I reach out until I feel the back of the chair. Once I’m sure of its position, I lower myself onto it. My body refuses to relax, remembering when tiny paws crawled over my feet in the cellar. No matter. Girls aren’t allowed to relax anyway. Not unless heavy with what may be a warlock.
The one thing I can do is close my eyes and hum the little tune Bethany sings the younger girls when they’re frightened. The humming stays silent, playing only in my head. There would be more punishment if I got caught humming. It’s just as well. Bethany may sound as sweet as a bird, but I’m worse than an old frog.
How long will they keep me here? They could have at least sent mother with me, since she has nowhere else to go. She could stand in one of these corners as well as a corner out there. Did she sit in the same room when she was tested? I wish she would have told me more on the carriage ride here. She only said that I need to have a lot of magic in my blood to be of any worth. My head aches under the tightness of my bun.
The door opens and the electric lights turn on. I squint against the brightness, wanting to look at the light. Our house was only recently wired for electricity and Father rarely wastes it on us. My eyes adjust to the unnatural light so I’m able to see a man, skin like prunes, focused on the papers in his hands. When he looks up from his papers, his eyes tighten. “Get out of my chair.”
I jump. Blast! I should have known it wasn’t for my use. Why didn’t I think of it being there for the tester? I lower my head, hoping he doesn’t discipline me for the mistake.
Once seated he says, “Shut the door.”
After closing it, I press my back against its hard surface. His focus returns to his papers. No punishment then—at least not immediately.
“Seventeen today,” he says. “Need more girls to come in right away on their birthdays.”
Does he think I had a choice? Who would come early if they didn’t have to? I suppress a groan. Cynthia maybe. She’s always been fascinated by boys. And the girls from class. Basically, any girl who’s not me.
He delves back into the parchment. His thin nose is long until the end where it bulges out. White hair sticks out from his head as if the remaining strands are trying to escape.
“Very good pedigree,” he mumbles. “Father most impressive. Mother’s Father is Devon Mullshire. His and his Fathers’ powers were excellent. Simply excellent. With that alone I’d say a warlock should court the girl before the month is over. Get over here, girl, and give me your bare hand.”
Is this a trick? Some sort of test before the real test? The Woman’s Canon says a woman must always wear gloves when a warlock is present. I inch toward him, but leave my hands gloved and curled together. He can’t really want me to break that rule, can he?
At my hesitance, he zaps a silver hex at me. The light strikes across my body and I attempt to hide a cringe. I suck in a breath as the feeling of needles poking my skin encompasses me. As the pain subsides, I tug off my glove and hold out my hand, silently cursing him.
The tester’s fingers scratch against my hand as he flips it palm up. I clamp my jaw together and force myself not to move. He stares at my palm. Maybe he can see the magic just by looking. Maybe the rumor in class of the tester spilling my blood was to scare us girls.
A spell of black fog dances from his hands, with tendrils darting out of it like clawing fingers. I dig the heels of my shoes into the floor. The fog nears and loses its blur, hardening into a single knife. I pull away, but he yanks me back. The dark blade skims across my palm and stabs my wrist then dissipates, leaving behind pain. I bite my lip to keep silent.
The crimson on my wrist grows and drips. Before it falls to the floor, the warlock emits a faint blue spell to catch it. The light flows up to the cut and draws more liquid from my wound. While the pulling continues at my wrist, I feel a tug snagging deep in my chest. Something inside me protests as the yanking grows. Once there’s about a shot glass full, the pulling stops.
A small hiss escapes me, which he thankfully doesn’t seem to care about. The spell dances over my skin, closing the wound, and the last trickle of fluid ceases. Dizziness strikes. I wobble and use the still closed door to steady myself. The room sways as the tester waves his hand, and the spell stretches its beam of light and thins my blood out into a flat circle. The sight of my blood like an evil moon before me makes my stomach churn.
The minutes drag by. The dizziness doesn’t leave, but lessens. I try to avoid gazing at the crimson circle. The tester’s brows furrow as he studies it. My pulse grows faster. I didn’t expect it to take this long. I suck in air and gradually release it. Is there something wrong with it? What if there’s no magic in it at all? If I were a boy, it would have been checked long ago, but since women don’t do spells, there wasn’t a reason to check until now. How angry will Father be if there’s nothing in it?
I sag lower against the door. The tester fixes a glare at me. I stand straight and proper though it makes the room sway again. His focus returns to my life force. The spelled light pulses twice before compressing my blood. When it’s the size of a squashed pea, it merges onto one of his papers.
“Bring your Father.” His voice makes me start after such a long silence.
I hurry from the room, grateful to get away. Once in the hall, I give myself a moment to become accustomed to my weakened state. When I think I can handle it, I walk fast down the hall. Or at least as quickly as my faint body will let me.
When I reach the waiting area, mother is still in the corner, but the women surrounding her are different than those who were waiting before. All have varying shapes of tattoos above their collarbones. The center tattoo is bordered by a second in a diverse array of lines, curves, and sometimes another shape. The border indicates they’re all married. The daughters must be in testing rooms like the one I just left. Their eyes constantly dart toward the men.
Father lazes, laughing with the men. I position myself where Father can see me, but where I won’t be in the way. After a few moments he addresses me.
“Finished then. Let’s see how soon some chap will ask for you.” He tosses his pipe on a table. “Agatha, come.”
The crowd of women parts for my mother, who waddles behind Father. I would rather be headed to class, but wishing won’t make it happen. When we’re back to the tester, a second chair has appeared across from him. The room seems larger and somehow warmer. I don’t know if it’s really changed or if it’s easier to face with mother here.
Father’s frame overflows the new seat, and mother moves to stand behind him. After closing the door, I take my place beside her. The air grows hot with the progressing day and too many bodies in the tight room. I pull at my navy gown, but it goes right back to sticking to my skin.
“Good to see you, Councilman.” The tester smiles, making his face appear kind instead of foreboding, though more pruneish than ever. It’s almost like he’s a different person.
“And you,” Father says anxiously. “What are the results?”
The warlock shows Father the parchment with my blood on it. “Take a look for yourself. It’s already lost some of its potency, but she’s brimming with magic. Good fine stock. Should be able to secure you an exemplary son-in-law within the month.”
Father studies the parchment for a moment. “Marvelous. You’ve done some fine testing.”
“Thank you, Councilman Stephen. We’ve all been impressed with your own work. You’re a great benefit to our society. I’ll make sure the paperwork gets in right away. I suspect offers will be arriving soon.”
“Any good candidates inquiring lately?”
“Matter of fact, the Grand Chancellor’s son was recently in. Picked a wench two days ago.”
The Grand Chancellor’s son? If he hadn’t picked a wife previously, would I have made it on his list? I grip my hands together. It’s doubtful I could handle hosting the required balls and being watched and gossiped about by all the other councilmen’s wives. Having to endure my husband will be hard enough without him being a powerful and influential warlock. More than ever the thought makes me want to be back with my sisters. Father leans forward, eager as the tester continues.
“Lots of other good ones are still looking. Jonathan, Councilman Michael’s son was by the other day but hasn’t found a wife yet. Neither have Frank or Walter of Norpar.”
“Excellent. Would you make sure they are aware of Serena’s submission?”
“Of course. I’ll pass it on to those of esteem. I keep hoping Chancellor Jacob will come in for a new wife. He needs to get over his dead one. So many admire you council members. He’s setting a bad example.”
Father rubs his chin. “Can you imagine if she was the Chancellor’s wife? That would bring good things for me. Since that won’t happen, the most powerful, influential warlock in Chardonia who needs a wife would be fine. Preferably one that can pay a lot.”
They both stand. “I’ll take care of it. Thank you for bringing her in.”
“Just doing my duty. I’m ready for some strapping grandsons.”
My insides hurt. I fold my arms across my stomach as they head out, but it doesn’t help with the pain. I move to follow.
Mother touches my elbow. The touch startles me to a stop and she lets go. “I remember when I was chosen by your Father. It was a troublesome time, but you can do it. You’re strong and your sisters need your example.”
I close my eyes and shake my head before opening them again. “I don’t think I’m that type of strong.”
Mother sighs. “Maybe not, but you still have to go through it, society expects it. You’ll have a new owner soon.”
She’s right. A warlock could ask to buy me at any time. There’s nothing I can do about it. I follow mother from the room, bowing my head with the hope that it will keep further attention from me. But it’s too late to hope. I will always be owned.