Fiction is the most pervasive form of magic that human beings practice. In fiction one can revive the dead and travel through time. It's just a matter of flipping back a few pages. Even after the end, one can begin again, at the beginning. Fiction is a way to live hundreds of lives in the span of a few years, to die countless deaths, and have dozens of passionate love affairs. Fiction is immortality, one of the truest ways that the dead communicate with the living.
The act of telling stories is an ancient magic, and a practical one. Fiction brightens a dark world, and helps us be who it is that we really and truly want to be.
It also warns us of our follies, makes us face our weaknesses, and forces us to consider points of view that are not our own.
To be a writer, one must - by necessity - also be a witch.
In the Green Mountains of Vermont State, there is a school. This school has stood for more than three hundred years hidden among spruce and fir trees. From even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, this school has been a place where children grow into themselves, and become what it is they mean to be. It is a small school, woodsy and homey and old fashioned. There are no sports teams to rally behind, no marching band that travels to competitions near and far. To be sure, it is such a quiet school that some students inevitably find it to be tedious and boring.
This is Iris Academy, a school for witches.
You don't believe in witches? Well, that's understandable, because witches don't want you to know about them. The witch world is kept strictly secret. It's kept hidden from the mundane world of taxi cabs and insurance premiums and the Hubble telescope. That's both good and bad, but it is what it is. That's just how the world works.
Every once in awhile, a child who don't know a single thing about the witch world will discover that they are a witch or a wizard themselves, capable of painting their own vision of the world across the wide, beautiful universe.
When this happens, the child is given a Choice: either they take a chance and enter into the mysterious and arcane world of magic, leaving their friends and family behind, or they forfeit their gifts forever, and their magic is sealed, leaving them a mundane human being with no memory of what it is that they have given up.
This is the story of one girl who chose to open the gate and cross the threshold into the witch world. This is a story about what she found there.
She found good friends, the kind she would keep for her entire life. She found that there were quite a lot of things about the world that she did not understand, and that the things she did not understand were not all magical in nature. She found that not everyone thought the way that she did, and that sometimes she fought with them, and sometimes she laughed with them, and sometimes she cried with them. She worked very hard, she played very hard, and she thought about lots and lots of things.
She also found the place where she belonged, and the one person that she belonged with.
This is a destiny that she wrote herself.
For good or for ill, this is what she chose, and the world that was created as a result.
Pentagrams and Pomegranates Part I: An Ideal Husband Initium
And now, you have also made the Choice.
I'll see you at school.
- L. B. B.
Pentagrams and Pomegranates
Part I: An Ideal Husband
Heroine x Hieronymous Grabiner; Damien Ramsey
By Gabihime at gmail dot com
Prologue: Infinite Debt
In some ways, perhaps, Marianne Amoretta Suzerain's life began on Dydd Santes Dwynwen, for that was the day she found herself unexpectedly married and then apparently abandoned, her bare feet cold on the stone floor of the shadowy dungeon, standing alone and holding two forgotten baskets that still trailed their ribbons toward the chilly ground.
And perhaps it was appropriate that they had exchanged their vows on the day that was sacred to Saint Dwynwen, because tradition and custom had dictated the identity of the unwilling groom, tradition and custom that she found strange and unfamiliar. She understood that it had all been done to save her life, that she in ignorance had broken a taboo that demanded a sacrifice before it could be forgiven, that Professor Grabiner had made the sacrifice in her stead: he would take her as a wife whether he wanted to or not.
The word of a wizard is binding, Petunia Potsdam had told her, And it is bound by more than honor, the desire to do right by someone else. The word of a wizard is bound by the old laws, the ones that govern the shape and nature of the universe. There is no defying what is.
'What is' seemed to be 'we will celebrate a wedding in high style, no matter what your feelings are on the subject.' It was strange being at the center of a knot of activity that she really wanted no part of. For many little girls who become older girls, a wedding is a sort of fairy-tale come true, a day of Cinderella magic when even a fireplace urchin becomes a beribboned princess, at least until the clock strikes twelve. Being at least a little sensible, although certainly quite eccentric, Amoretta was willing to give up the fleeting pleasures of princesshood for the guarantee that she wouldn't be left feeling cold and lonely after the stroke of midnight.
But it was like her father was fond of saying when she worried over some accident of fate: Life doesn't come with a guarantee. The only guarantee is that it keeps coming until it doesn't any more, and then you'll wish it did.
Even if she had been willing to give up on being a bridal princess, Amoretta still had the tender heart of a girl who calls all the flowers in the garden by personal names. She had dreamed of being loved and cherished by someone who thought of her as a bright light in a dim room, or the familiar brush of fingertips when one otherwise feels all alone. She didn't necessarily want danger and mystery, although she probably wouldn't have objected to them, being that she was of a highly imaginative bent. What she wanted most was that 'bonheur dans la vie,' something she had very little experience with.
She had read about love in books often enough, and she had reluctantly accepted one confession already, but what she really wanted -
It wasn't words: not empty promises, familiar excuses, or hollow platitudes. It was something that she wouldn't have traded for all the diamonds that have ever been bought or paid for with blood.
What she wanted, maybe it didn't even exist at all, and it was the same as when she had been a little girl, and crawled out her window and sat up very late in the garden, waiting for unicorns.
What she was facing this evening wasn't a unicorn.
It was a dragon.
While Amoretta dwelt long and hard on her fate, her fairy god-mother was hard at work, singing to herself about what nice work it was, if one could get it. Petunia Potsdam, headmistress of Iris Academy and resident fairy god-mother, was alive with spirit and activity. That effervescent lady danced first this way and that, spinning hopeful yarns about Amoretta's future marriage like they were dreams to be fashioned fully out of fairy-cloth. She was so full of good cheer one might have supposed it was her own wedding she was preparing for. She was the model of perpetual motion, leaving a veritable trail of sparkling fairydust behind her. As she hummed and chatted and promised good things for the future, she fitted Amoretta for a wedding dress, saw to her ritual cleansing (which involved a lot of scrubbing at the bathroom sink), and filled up all the uncomfortable silences with proverbs and sayings about weddings, some of which Amoretta was sure she just made up on the spot.
"After all, my darling, weddings are joyous occasions!" Professor Potsdam had reassured her while pinning up the hem of the wedding gown that had been produced from the depths of one of her closets.
I suppose she has this dress just in case, Amoretta thought to herself. Does this sort of thing happen regularly? The headmistress has certainly taken it fully in stride. I wonder if students are always getting married at witch school. If they are you'd think they'd put something about it in the orientation materials.
Petunia Potsdam was still chatting away. "And marriage is really quite splendid, when one marries the appropriate person," she was saying, "So try not to look so much as if you've been condemned to death, or you might hurt Hieronymous's feelings."
Amoretta had sighed then, because Professor Potsdam had hit it on the head like cracking nuts with a carpenter's hammer. This situation, she wouldn't say that it was possibly damaging to her generally positive relationship with Professor Grabiner so much as that it was guaranteed to destroy it utterly in a cataclysmic eruption visible from orbit. Amoretta had been slowly and carefully building a house of cards, and this marriage had appeared like a hurricane, dead set on wrecking her life. But Petunia Potsdam had already gone out of her way to make Amoretta understand that there was no avoiding her upcoming nuptials unless she wished to die and in the process irrevocably maim Professor Grabiner's soul.
She was just sixteen years old and she had never been kissed, but she was going to be married before the day was out.
The groom was - she did not want to think about the groom right now. Preparing for her part in the wedding was like preforming dental work on a rooster. Wherever Professor Grabiner was, whatever he was doing -
It's a cinch that he's not having a good time, she thought.
"Have you ever been married, Professor Potsdam?" Amoretta asked, hoping for some distraction from her own troubles. It wasn't as if she were really unwilling to marry Professor Grabiner, but it was that -
"Oh my, yes, chickadee," Professor Potsdam trilled in response, as happy as a fat little songbird sitting on a wire. She looked up from the hem of the wedding dress to give Amoretta a warm smile. "Seven blissful times already. And you know, since I am overseeing your wedding, and you are marrying Hieronymous, I think you ought to call me Petunia. Not when we're in class, mind, but when we're alone and cozy that seems quite fine to me."
Seven times. Amoretta's mind spun more crazily than the time she had ridden the wild mouse four times in a row with no breaks. No wonder so many of the students called the headmistress of Iris Academy "Potty Potsdam."
"Seven," she stammered out, and then in her guileless inexperience asked what was perhaps an inappropriate question, "Why have you had so many husbands?"
"They weren't all husbands," Petunia Potsdam answered candidly and easily, not pausing a moment from the business of pinning up the hem of Amoretta's dress, as if nothing at all between heaven and earth could ruffle her feathers. "Some of them were wives, and one of them was something else entirely. As for why the number seven, it just so happens that my heart has been moved to devotion and despair exactly seven times in my life. Seven is a very lucky number, so I plan on keeping it at seven unless I meet someone so remarkable that my socks are literally knocked off."
Amoretta looked down at Professor Potsdam's socks, which were green and white striped in broad horizontal bands so that her legs with their fine ankles looked like sticks of peppermint candy. She was the good witch of the east.
"You really married every person you ever fell in love with?" Amoretta asked wonderingly.
This was a very novel idea even for Amoretta, who had consumed all sorts of fictional morsels about love, romance, and human relationships, and had constructed a patchwork picture of the world from them. She had what a charitable person calls 'a very idealistic view of the world' and what a less charitable person calls 'a very silly one.' But still, to marry absolutely every person you ever fell in love with, even Amoretta recognized that this was perhaps an untenable strategy. Besides, Amoretta was well aware that 'love' was not simply a synonym for 'marriage.' It seemed to her that often times, the two words had very little in common (except for a single vowel). Her years in boarding school had introduced herself to this idea. At school it seemed like most of the girls had parents who did not particularly like one another (or if they did like one another, they did not like one another for long). Their parents had been married sometimes four or five times, and as a result, these girls were generally quite disillusioned with the institution of marriage. They had very little interest in it. After all, one of her classmates had said to her last year, it doesn't mean anything. It's just something you do so people won't talk, and because of the tax code. At the time, Amoretta had thought this to be a very cool attitude for a girl all of fifteen years old, but had reserved judgement on the matter. It wasn't as if she thought that everyone ought to be married, but if one were going to bother with it at all, it ought to be for love, she thought. Anything else was simply wasteful. One only had so much time to live, after all.
"Of course," Professor Potsdam answered mildly. "I am a very determined woman, you see, and to accept any other course would have been very wasteful indeed," she said, echoing Amoretta's recent thoughts so strikingly that the bride-to-be looked up in surprise with flushed cheeks. Petunia Potsdam apparently didn't take any note of her reaction, because she continued on as if nothing had happened. "Love strong enough to bet your life and your heart on is not particularly common, my darling," she said, "So it is my considered opinion that when one encounters it, one should pursue it to the hilt."
That was all well and good, like planting old seeds found at the back of the garden shed and wishing for them to come up hollyhocks, but -
Amoretta wrung her hands, nibbling on her bottom lip before asking, "And all your seven marriages, all seven of the people that you loved, did it all end well?"
Unexpectedly, Petunia Potsdam threw her head back and laughed, long and from somewhere deep in her chest. Amoretta stood there twisting her hands uncertainly while the headmistress recovered enough to speak.
"That is a question asked in youth," Professor Potsdam explained, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a bit of ribbon, "And one I do not have the grace to answer, or rather, I think you had best find the answer out for your own self. I can say, however, that I'm still standing."
"You're not afraid of being hurt?" Amoretta asked, because at this point, she was not sure Petunia Potsdam was afraid of much of anything. It was as if every moment was a new, fascinating page in a picture book for her, something to be marveled at, but never something to be feared.
"Of course I'm afraid of being hurt," the headmistress answered casually, her head and shoulders fully under the edge of her ruffled bedskirt as she dug under the bed for some tidbit of trim she required. "But I'm much more afraid of not being hurt." She sprang up from under the bed with a flourish, brandishing a long golden ribbon, "If you let yourself become numb to pain, you also become numb to joy. Everything becomes gray and small, and eventually you find yourself wishing for your own death," she observed thoughtfully, staring absently at the floor, but then she was all sparkling smiles again, "At least, that is my own experience in life."
Amoretta did not want to be numb any more than she wanted to live in fear, but soon enough that would not be a question that she decided on her own any longer. She was going to be yoked, and she was filled with worry and dread that the person she was going to be yoked to would refuse to go forward the same as he refused to go backward. She was afraid that he would stand stock-still, as obstinate as a donkey in a rainstorm, and wait for time to put him out of his misery.
It was not the most romantic of sentiments.
"The marriage for a year and a day," Amoretta began haltingly, thinking of the glowering, brooding groom, wherever he might be, "You said, once the time is up the marriage can be dissolved or the vows renewed, depending on the wishes of the couple, but what if," she shifted from one foot to the other and the hem of her dress swayed as if she were dancing, "What if one person wants to dissolve the union and the other person wants to continue it? What happens then?"
"A marriage, like any relationship, is a partnership. It cannot go forward with only one person shouldering the responsibilities - " the headmistress explained in her classroom voice, busily tying the golden ribbon prettily around the handle of one of the baskets that had procured for the ceremony. Then as if the full portent of Amoretta's words had finally sunk into her skin, she stopped cold and fixed Amoretta with a surprisingly piercing stare. "You're already in love with Hieronymous Grabiner," she realized wonderingly, and it was as if she had struck very accurately with a lash.
Amoretta squeaked in dismay at having her secret heart found out so easily and fell back bonelessly into the ruffled slipper chair behind her, her cheeks blazing scarlet, but then she was yelping in distress and fright because she had just sat down hard on one of the pins in her dress.
"Off with your dress, off with your dress," Professor Potsdam was crying, and Amoretta found her arms being raised over her head and the dress yanked quite off of her before she knew what was happening. "It's bad luck if you bleed on your wedding dress," she confided as she yanked the pin out of Amoretta's backside and then immediately pressed her hand to the small wound, murmuring some words as a small rune circle formed underneath her fingertips.
Even with the wound healed, Amoretta could not help but ruefully rub her bottom, because it kept her from meeting the headmistress's eyes after such an embarrassing revelation. Professor Potsdam might think it was all well and good to marry a student off to a teacher to save her life, but when it became plain that the student harbored inappropriate affections for said teacher, perhaps all bets were off. Maybe they'd bury Amoretta on the campus, underneath a tree. She thought Ellen would put flowers on the little grave, even if Virginia never remembered to. She hoped people would think of her fondly even after she was gone, although she was fairly certain that Hieronymous Grabiner would not.
"You know, my darling duckling, I never believed in all the rumors of your uncanny luck until this particular moment," laughed the headmistress, quite interrupting Amoretta's wistful daydreaming about her early death and quiet tomb. "Are you absolutely certain that you didn't know what would happen when your crossed those wards and broke his circle?" the headmistress leaned toward the hunched over girl until Amoretta found herself facing a hanging garden of Professor Potsdam's sunset-golden hair and the dangling crystals of her earrings.
"Of course I didn't," Amoretta blurted out, rubbing at her eyes with balled up fists like an angry kitten with something stuck to the end of its nose, "If I had I wouldn't have crossed them. I've been trying to make friends with him since the beginning of the year and now the only thing I'm sure of is that I've messed everything up."
It all came out now, all her worries and her fears. He was sure to hate her now, and she deserved it, doing such a silly thing as she had done. Who in their right mind would have crossed a blazing ward into certain death, going right where they weren't wanted at all? She had done it because it had been the only thing she could do, given the circumstances. She had done it despite all she knew, despite all she had read. She had not been willing to watch him die.
And it was like a switch had been flipped in her fate, turning absolutely everything upside down.
She was going to be married, and far from being loved, the groom didn't even like her. In fact, at the moment he probably positively loathed her. He would not have gone to put flowers on her little grave. Of that she was certain.
She cried unashamedly, like a little girl who has just had three teeth pulled and two vaccinations. It was all very miserable.
Unexpectedly, Professor Potsdam put her arms around Amoretta's middle and gave her a good squeeze. Standing there sniffling and rubbing at her eyes, Amoretta could not help but find the whole situation exceedingly strange. She was standing in her underwear in Professor Potsdam's dainty bedroom, waiting to be married to Professor Grabiner, with a minor wound on her bottom and a very ragged one in her heart.
"Don't cry, my lambkin," Professor Potsdam comforted her, stroking her dark hair calmly, as if she might have been soothing a terrified alley cat. "Everything will turn out perfectly fine, you'll see. Really, this is the best thing that could have happened to the both of you, I think."
Professor Potsdam gave her a lace handkerchief to wipe her eyes on and Amoretta sniffled alarmingly as she did so, confessing her fears into the headmistress's shoulder, "I don't see how that's possible. He's so angry with me now, I don't have any idea what to do. What if he never speaks to me again?"
The headmistress chuckled, "I'm afraid that if you're going to be married to Hieronymous Grabiner then you're going to have to get accustomed to the fact that he will sometimes be angry with you, often through absolutely no fault of your own. It is one of his foibles, as I am sure you are becoming aware: he has a very short temper and he always jumps to conclusions." Then the good lady gave Amoretta a friendly shake and said, "You're just going to have to learn to deal with him in the best way that you can. Don't be afraid of him, no matter how he rails at you. His bark is much worse than his bite. You'll never get anywhere with him if you always try to walk on eggshells. Oh, pay him courtesy, certainly," she was saying, "He really loves to be flattered, although I think he'd die on the spot if he realized I had told you such a thing. Now, show me that smile you are so famous for, Miss Marianne Amoretta Suzerain. You will need all your confidence, kindness, patience, and cleverness if you are going to get through the coming year in one piece. A marriage is a journey, and while it is not one to be undertaken lightly, it is best to undertake it with a light heart."
"It all sounds very complicated," Amoretta lamented as the headmistress released her from her impromptu embrace.
"Of course it is," Professor Potsdam agreed, "Which is why it is so interesting."
And so Amoretta tried to face her wedding with all the kindness and courage she had. She gave him her best smile when Professor Potsdam led her into the flickering firelight where Minnie Cochran stood holding the wedding baskets, but her smile only caused his frown to deepen.
It was hard to remain positive and cheerful when it was so very clear that he was remaining civil only with difficulty. He did not touch her once during the ceremony, and looked at her as little as possible, as if she might be carrying an infectious disease that was transmitted by line of sight.
They exchanged vows in due course, and then he departed, leaving her with no qualms as to how he considered their marriage, such as it was. The strain of the situation had broken his civility in the end, and he had left her with a scathing remark that had made her ears burn.
This is impossible, Amoretta thought hopelessly. This is all impossible.
Professor Potsdam sighed after Grabiner had gone. "I swear, that man has such a flair for the dramatic. You'd think I'd just tried to cut off his toes, one by one." She fluttered one of her hands, "Instead I married him off to a very pretty girl who thinks well of him." She threw up her hands, "Well, sometimes he's so pettish that there's just no dealing with him." She turned to Amoretta and Minnie, "Well girls, I would have rather that the happy bridegroom had joined us, but we may as well go celebrate the event ourselves. I'll take you two out for dinner."
Minnie nodded obediently at this, ready to dutifully continue her part as witness, maid of honor, mother of the bride, and moral support until the bitter end, but Amoretta, left holding the baskets, shook her head.
She still believed in unicorns, after all.
"You go on without me," she said, and when she caught Professor Potsdam's frown she hastened to explain, "It's just that I think I ought to go try and talk to him. I know he's angry, and it might not do any good, but we are married now, so I don't think I could really enjoy myself if we went out and I knew he was just upstairs in his rooms stewing."
"You are braver than a lion, my lamb," Professor Potsdam laughed, "And more stubborn than a donkey. Just you stick to your guns, my dear. Rome wasn't built in one night, but the man who wants to move a mountain begins by carrying away small stones."
Minnie and the headmistress helped Amoretta out of her borrowed wedding gown, and then they excused themselves for the night, Professor Potsdam giving Amoretta explicit directions as to where she might find Professor Grabiner when he was 'in one of his sulks,' and Minnie giving her a look that was a strange mixture of admiration and forlorn farewell, as if she expected that Amoretta was going to her doom.
With one final impossibly deep breath, Amoretta went to her doom.
The second floor hallway was empty and the school was very quiet. It felt very strange after the rush of the day.
I suppose this is what it always feels like, the evening after a wedding, she thought, only Amoretta was the one left sweeping up the streamers and the rice all alone, as if the fairy tale bride had gone off on her own to a castle far away.
Instead of receiving an all-expenses-paid happily-ever-after, Amoretta was left in her scuffed brown shoes and her familiar gray school robes. She looked like a first year student, not a newly married woman. She didn't even have a bouquet of flowers to dry out and save until she was old and wrinkled.
He didn't answer the door when she knocked, so she knocked again.
Still he didn't answer.
So she knocked again, not loudly, not insistently, but patiently.
And still he didn't answer.
"Professor Grabiner," Amoretta began, trying to keep her voice low and steady, "I just wanted to talk."
She heard the door rattle slightly, as if he had put his hand on the knob, but then the rattling stopped, as if he had drawn his hand away.
"I have nothing to say to you," he answered shortly, his voice muffled by the door that stood between them. "If you do not get yourself to bed this instant and stop hammering on my door, you will find yourself with demerits. It is now considerably past curfew."
"But - " she tried.
"Go to bed," he nearly shouted, and then she could hear his footsteps recede as he stalked away from the door.
Amoretta sighed and sank to the floor in the hallway, leaning her back up against the door that he refused to open for her.
I just wanted to talk, she thought. Professor Potsdam seems sure that I can work miracles, but I don't even know where to start if he won't even talk to me.
Then she thought, What would I do if he were a wild animal? What would I do if he were a wild animal afraid of everything, what would I do to get him to like me?
That was a question she could answer for herself very easily, because hadn't she befriended all manner of things when she was a little girl? Creeping things and crawling things and hopping things and flying things; woodchucks and moles and fawns and robins and even the little lizards you could tickle with grass, she had made friends of them all, because as a little girl who lived in an isolated farmhouse in the mountains, they were the only friends to be had. Even later as an older girl, they were often the closest friends she made.
If she could befriend a skunk without being sprayed (often) then she could befriend Hieronymous Grabiner, even against his will.
The first thing to do was to get him used to her presence. If one was slow and quiet and above all patient, even the shyest creature would eventually become accustomed to one being around him. This was something she had already been working on all year, her house of cards that had been toppled by an unexpected storm. As it sometimes happened with wild animals, unforeseen events had done much to destroy the trust and familiarity that had stood between them before. The only thing to do was to start over from scratch, slow and patient and gentle. She would build another house of cards.
Thinking all of this over to herself, and feeling quite exhausted from the day's many difficult events, Amoretta Suzerain at last drifted off to sleep and spent her wedding night alone, sleeping on the floor in a cold stone hallway.
She was awakened in the pale, chilly dawn by being shaken so hard that her teeth rattled.
"I doubt you have anything resembling a suitable explanation for this, but what are you doing sleeping in my doorway?" Professor Grabiner demanded, still shaking her shoulder.
Being flopped around like a rag doll and still half asleep, Amoretta yawned, "Well, I told you last night that I wanted to talk to you, but you wouldn't let me in, so I thought if I just stayed here, eventually you would open the door."
For a moment, Hieronymous Grabiner seemed completely unable to speak or think, as if she had frozen him in place with a spell that stopped his personal time, but then he had found himself again and was sputtering, "Ten demerits."
"Yes, sir," she yawned again sleepily, leaning against his hand. Amoretta did not immediately leap to her feet to get out his way and scurry out of his sight because she was sleepy and sore from having slept on stone, and he was being awfully bad-tempered.
Apparently disturbed that his habitual consignment of disciplinary action did not seem to be particularly effective this particular morning, Grabiner amped his voltage, booming, "Twenty demerits."
All at once Amoretta came to the realization that Grabiner was willing to stand grimly in his doorway and dispense demerits until the sun collapsed in on itself. At last she scrambled to her feet and struggled to set her uniform to rights, fluffing her hair, which was rather flattened from having been slept on. She rubbed the back of her hand across her eyes and tried her best to look presentable despite the fact that she had slept on the floor in a hallway.
This done, she smiled as cheerfully as she was able and said, "Good morning, sir. Would you like to go to breakfast?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of his hands curl into a fist, tremble, and then relax.
"No, I would not," he said shortly, and it was clear that he was controlling his temper with some difficulty.
She judged that now would be the appropriate time to retreat. Her goal was to get him familiar with her presence, not burn her face into his mind as an object of eternal scorn and ridicule.
"All right then," she said with the good nature of an early spring robin, although it wasn't easy to keep her smiles looking effortless when he was glowering like an angry tomcat, "I hope you have a pleasant day, sir," she wished genially, and the excused herself from his presence.
And this, of course, was the very beginning of her troubles.