Fiction: Luck of the Ball, Part One

Handdrawn illustration of a green meadow foreground with green and yellow pine trees growing against a mint-hued sky. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/grey/black stripes of the aromantic pride flag. The text Aro Worlds Fiction sits across the image in a black, antique handdrawn type, separated by two ornate Victorian-style black dividers.

A coven of gentlewoman witches seems like the perfect place for Luck Vaunted to hide from hir powerful brother, father and husband. Even better, the upcoming Guildmeet ball offers the new Luck the perfect chance to experiment with genderlessness, magic and sex, if only ze can avoid more sorcery-revealing accidents. Sure, the witches welcome hir with open arms, but after hir twin’s betrayal, how can ze risk trusting anyone but hirself?

When hir brother attends the Guildmeet, a lover expects romantic intimacy and a quest of boots threatens to reveal hir deceit, Luck can no longer outrun hir monsters. Hir only chance of escape: the Westhold coven. But how does ze ask, when ze has lied to them, too?

Some fairy-tale families are formed by blood or marriage. Others are formed by aromantic witches defending each other against respectability, amatonormativity … and the sorcerer potentate’s heir.

Luck tries to cultivate a persona of general obliviousness and genial curiosity, but ze awaits the day hir questions result in four intelligent witches wondering why ze doesn’t know the obvious.

Contains: An allo-aro genderless person on the run from hir family; a coven of four aromantic-spectrum witches ignoring all the rules about gender and relationships; and a version of Cinderella that rejects the amatonormativity of Disney’s fairy godmother’s ignoring familial abuse until it prevents the heroine from attending a dance to find a husband.

Content advisory: This story contains more casual sex references, discussions and descriptions than most of my previous stories, although the bulk of the main sex scene happens off-page (fade to black). It also contains depictions of hypervigilance, avoidance, anxiety, nightmares, dissociation and other trauma-related behaviours in a character having recently left an oppressive, patriarchal marriage and culture. This includes references to previous/off-page instances where the protagonist doesn’t consent to sex or marriage, as well as an on-page instance of hir being grabbed at.

Please expect casual death mentions, references to misogynistic behaviours, a fair amount of amatonormativity, an incident involving the protagonist breathlessly trapped in a tangle of threads and cords, a less-kind take on the prince’s searching for Cinderella by shoe-fitting, and frequent casual touching/moments of physical intimacy between the protagonist and hir fellow witches.

Length: 1, 848 words (part one of six).

Note: This was meant to be the first of two ficlet-sized stories to round out Aro Week, but it ended up novelette-length! There was no way I could finish editing in the time I had, so I’m posting this in instalments. The first two will go up today and tomorrow; the rest will be posted every few days over the next fortnight.

“I have a letter to discuss.” Sedulous, head of the Westhold coven by virtue of title and age, clomps her way to the breakfast table. Mud flakes from her boots, straw clings to her trousers and a three-day-old duckling peeps above one robe pocket. Her narrow hands clasp a sheet of cream paper, closed with a crimson seal, and a deeper-than-usual frown carves across her brow as she sits, careful not to jostle the duckling. “This is a subject of some concern.”

Luck Vaunted stiffens.

A backwater coven of gentlewoman witches seemed like the perfect escape for a sorcerer’s twin fleeing hir brother, father and husband. An obscure household two months’ travel from the Citadel must be the last place hir family thinks to look, even should Father assume hir seeking magical instruction. Nor is anyone here likely to recognise the sorcerer potentate or his claimed children; Sedulous and her companions are sooner to be found repairing fences or beheading chickens than hobnobbing with the province steward or gentry.

None of that, alas, means Seven, Father or Prospect won’t drag hir back to the Citadel.

Slowly, while the others look at Sedulous, Luck shifts hir hand from hir plate, scratching hir forearm to mask hir slipping a knife up hir shirtsleeve. Ze long ago hid a bundle of clothes and money in the stable loft, now accessible by three doors and a long pathway. The witches may try to stop hir from running, but since Sorrow only last week had to free hir from the zucchini, rapid-growing beans and squash enticed by hir magic should hamper anyone’s pursuit—

“We are invited, this year as guests of the artisans, to the Guildmeet.” Sedulous sighs, scowls and tosses the letter onto the table. “Will we waste our time again? I see no reason, but I’m certain you,” and she turns her glare on Joy, reaching for the invitation with a loud whoop, “will disagree.”

Giddy with relief, Luck leans back in hir chair, resting hir palms flat on the table to still hir fingers’ quivering. Immediately, the table’s pot of basil—Sedulous considers cut flowers “wasteful”, “profligate” and “an abomination against nature” but likes a nicely-laid table—buds on the stems closest to hir hand. Even as ze watches, horrified, delicate white flowers bloom. Quickly, ze snaps off the flowering stems, stripping their leaves to add to hir bowl as a cover before dropping the rest onto hir lap. Lesson learnt: no more hands on the table!

Luck isn’t certain on all the differences between witchcraft and sorcery, but after a few months of living with four witches, ze’s sure the former doesn’t include spontaneous flowering or fruiting.

Ze doubts, too, that witchcraft encompasses roots entwining themselves around hir limbs as ze sleeps.

Picking at hir breakfast of grilled zucchini and left-over bean stew—Sedulous’s beans are unwontedly productive this summer, despite a gloomy absence of sunshine—Luck waits for the invitation to make its way from witch to witch, struggling not to gag at the overwhelming taste of basil.

Finally, Modesty hands hir the letter. Ornate handwriting offers little elaboration beyond a second red and gold seal, indicating the regional steward’s patronage: The Household of Lady Sedulous Esteemed is Cordially Invited to attend the Guildmeet on Behalf of the Artisans’ Guild. Ze skims the rest, largely dates, the person to whom Sedulous should send her receipt and a signature by an unknown-to-hir officiary, before setting it down on the table. “What’s the Guildmeet? Why the artisans’ guild?”

Questions bear no small risk of betraying hir ignorance of the Ring’s local politics and customs. The Citadel’s sorcerers disdain any magic that isn’t sorcery, scorning witches as pitiable wretches cursed with a faint trace of luck—more reprehensible, in many ways, than the unmagical citizenry over which they govern. While sorcerers don’t join a guild, organising themselves into a hierarchy of families dominated and constrained by the sorcerer potentate, perhaps witches do.

Luck tries to cultivate a persona of general obliviousness and genial curiosity, but ze awaits the day hir questions result in four intelligent witches wondering why ze doesn’t know the obvious.

“Oh, no.” Modesty’s lips form a tight O-shape. “Guilds are respectable organisations of respectable society, if not the gentry, and witches are … witches.” She pats Luck on the shoulder with a plump hand, stirring up a scent of musty rosewater. Ze struggles not to think of her as a grandmother character from the fairy stories Ma Felicity read to Luck and Seven, all floral dresses, frequent handkerchiefs, clicking knitting needles and pocket-kept sweets. Her soft, kindly face creases she returns to her usual smile, wisps of salt-and-pepper hair floating about her ears. “As respectable society invites the gentry to social functions, they sometimes include Sedulous. The Guildmeet is an entertainment, dear—dancing, performers. A ball.”

Sedulous brushes chaff from her bushy iron-grey braid, scowling. Her brows—thick and wide, just short of unruly—give her a forbidding look when paired with her sharp chin, punctuating a mien of quiet sternness. “It’s never worth the bother, and the gentry kissing up to Steward Steadfast are the real performance! Vile. What a waste of work.”

She almost smiles as she cradles the duckling against her chest.

Such momentary softenings never make Luck less fearful of her.

“But I love laughing at them! And we must go, because Beany needs to meet other young people.” Joy smacks one fist against the table, her green eyes glinting above a wickedly pointed nose, a cascade of scarlet hair sliding from her shoulders. That bright, somewhere-between-blood-and-tomato colour can’t exist by nature, but many oddities pass unremarked upon in a witches’ household. “There’ll be music and dancing in the hall, and acrobats and games in the gardens. Fire eaters. Sculptures. And lots of private bushes! The Guildmeet is the night for meeting partners … or partners.” She winks, grinning. Younger than the other three witches by at least a decade, she’s also the shortest. Neither truth daunts her. “We must go!”

“Luck” may be a common name for claimed daughters sired by sorcerers, but even Westhold’s folk know that the sorcerer potentate’s seventh son, the first seventh son born to six prior generations of seventh sons siring seven sons, is a twin. When every sorcerer family within and beyond the Citadel petitioned Father for hir hand—for my womb, ze told Father on hir twenty-first birthday, an hour before hir wedding—how can hir name be anything other than dangerous?

“Bean” is simple, ordinary. A little comical.

Bean is a genderless apprentice witch, unwed, free, ignorant of sorcery and sorcerers.

“I can’t say that I must attend,” Sorrow says in her thick, careful voice, her one-eyed crow perched on her shoulder and watching Joy’s vigorous use of knife and fork. “Nor do I object. Bean should meet … people not four old witches, if ze wishes.”

Joy points at her hair. “Who are you calling old, Greystreak?”

“Do you want to go?” Modesty asks Luck, resting her cutlery across her empty plate.

Startled, ze doesn’t know how to respond. Ze loathed the Citadel’s socials, trapped inside the expected display of personhood—womanhood, wifehood—that weighted down hir bones like world-heavy chains. Ze felt, on such occasions, like a tightrope walker—a drunk, concussed tightrope walker—failing to balance expected obedience with a growing sense of truth hir family couldn’t accept.

In the end, ze could only choose towards which side to fall.

Ze likes where ze landed. The coven’s ramshackle manse offers a peaceful simplicity in its wandering chickens, vegetable gardens and a hundred quiet corners. Sedulous insists only on their daily chores, in which the witches teach Luck practical spells and cantrips, and attending breakfast. Here, nobody cares to correct hir clumsy tongue, ze doesn’t need to wear shoes and the Citadel feels a distant memory, even if ze still isn’t used to the labour needed for meals and laundry alike.

Luck will never pretend hirself safe or the witches worthy of trust, but ze feels something roughly close to contentment.

If the coven, and Westhold, bears no resemblance to hir family home, shouldn’t this Guildmeet also be different? What if ze gets to experience a dance as an unmarried and ungendered apprentice? What if ze has fun?

“Is it … ribbony? Silks and laces and, and … fanciness? Is it fancy?” Ze wrinkles hir nose, doubtful that hir plain skirts and shirts do for anything but mucking stalls and potion brewing. Luck owns nothing from hir former life that can identify hir but hir face. “I don’t have ribbony things.”

Modesty’s brow creases: almost a frown, pitiful in comparison to Sedulous’s magnificent, terrifying expressions. “You and Sorrow are of a roundness, but you’re so much shorter in the torso and limbs, dear…” She clucks her tongue, dabbing at her lips with the corner of an embroidered handkerchief. “Sorrow, what of your old silk two-piece? Can we take up the skirt?”

Sorrow crooks her head, her long eyelashes fluttering. “What silk?”

Only a few streaks of grey lessen the contrast of sable hair and brows against Sorrow’s amber skin, but her black shift and shawl do much to hide the curviness of her hips and chest. Never has Luck seen her wear anything lighter or softer than a deep, brackish green, blue or purple. Even her socks and underthings are black, dried by magic lest the sun fade the dye.

“You remember that green one? You said it’s too short, and Bean likes green.”

“Short?” Joy snickers and helps herself to another serving of zucchini. “I thought you stopped wearing it because it doesn’t match your bird.”

“I don’t dress to match my familiars, Joy!”

The crow caws, turning about on Sorrow’s shoulder to rub her beak against her mistress’ ear.

Luck looks down at hir over-basiled breakfast, trying to hide hir blush.

“What about shoes, then?” Modesty plucks her journal and pencil from the top pocket of her floral-sprigged, ruffled apron—neatly pinned, as always, to the front of her dress. Even when her cheeks are flushed from running or washing dishes, her clothing never appears out of place. Magic, Luck guesses, but ze’s yet to figure out how to replicate this. “I suppose if we leave the skirt long, polished boots will do. What trimmings do you like, dear? Or would you prefer a suit? There may be something in the attic storeroom—shoes too, come to think—”

“We’re witches, Mody!” Joy rolls her eyes and drops her fork on her plate. “If we can’t wear what pleases us, what’s the good of anything? Let hir wear what ze likes!”

The conversation descends into an argument about how far a witch attached to a landed household may disregard propriety on formal occasions, but by the time Modesty draws up a list of items to find, refashion or buy, the question seems decided: the coven will escort their apprentice to the Guildmeet ball.

Luck, dreaming of attending a dance in a tailcoat, returns the knife from hir sleeve to the table.

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