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 listed every disreputable possibility, a litany birthed of desire and envy, on a scrap of paper nestled inside hir corset.
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, 824 words (part three of seven).
Note: Pain, familial goings-on and a brain finding it hard to word all means that I’ve been ridiculously slow in continuing this story. I am glad to get back to it!
Hir shoulder still aches by Guildmeet morn, but the excited-nervous flutter in Luck’s belly leaves hir more certain of hirself and, by extension, the now. Recognising the source and place of one fear anchors hir against the other, a barrier raised against the sewing room’s creeping nightmare-tendrils. Not now. A past mistake—a mistake free of scorn, criticism or betrayal. Consequential only in hir lessons and a mess of fibres in need of sorting. Not now!
Part of hir anxiously awaits the click of a snapped trap, suspecting such wonderment a lure. Part of hir, more of hir, impatiently anticipates an event preluded with Joy’s breakfast-told stories of performances, dances and escapades had by drunken gentry. Said entertainments sound provincial by the Citadel’s reckoning, but how does that matter when nobody there knows hir cursed birth-name?
Luck listed every disreputable possibility, a litany born of desire and envy, on a scrap of paper nestled inside hir corset.
How brave can ze be? How brave will ze be?
“Bean, dear? Will you try again?”
Outside the Citadel, a holiday means food in want of cooking and animals in need of tending. Inside the coven, a holiday offers no excuse for abandoning hir studies. Leeks and potatoes enter the pot for tomorrow’s stew, but Luck’s fingers don’t survive the chopping unscathed; Sorrow, sighing, exchanges hir knife for broom and dustpan. Even then ze trips over mop and knocks over bucket, hir skin thrumming as though called to a march hir ears deny. Lessons offer a graver challenge: never has ze called them “easy”, but today they bear an absurd impossibility.
Guide a grain of salt with hir magic?
Why not ask hir to cast the world’s seas into the firmament?
Before, the witches taught a hodgepodge of kitchen magic, spells and cantrips as required or inspired by their daily work. Now, ze spends the first after-lunch hour with Modesty, struggling with tedious tasks requiring but a touch of magic interjected into hir actions and words. Seven learnt to call the wind, to project his voice over distance, to scorch a weed-festooned paddock with flame; lesson after lesson, he grew his power to meet ever-greater circumstances. How can something so purposeless, by comparison, be a teaching exercise?
When will anyone need the art of nudging a speck of salt across a desk to place it inside an inkspot half the size of hir smallest fingernail?
Hir thoughts tangle amidst and slam against each other. In the chaos of prickling scalp and jiggling bones, hir frustration spills, unfiltered, from hir lips: “Why? People light candles and that’s useful, needed. People don’t need a single spark, too quick to … to flame, catch, light. Burn. Or to will a bit of salt. Not even a pinch. This isn’t the right way about!”
The grain does move, without difficulty, in response to hir thoughts … before skidding off the desk, vanishing into the mess of dust, animal hair and thread ends collecting about chair legs and along skirting boards.
“Because you’re a witch, dear.” Modesty possesses a deep well of patience: each afternoon she sits in the corner armchair with her mending or knitting, unruffled by Luck’s pacing. Sometimes her clicking needles bear the soothing cadence of a ticking clock, but today the sound jars Luck’s teeth. “While you could create a firestorm, how does this aid you or your community? By making sparks or moving salt, you’re learning to control the breadth of your magic for smaller, useful endeavours.” Modesty hesitates, the barest hint of a smile touching her lips. “You’re learning to create light without melting candles.”
Luck glares down at the desk, certain that hir burning cheeks reveal many attempts to conceal prior melted-candle incidents. Hasn’t Modesty put words to hir problem? Ze isn’t a witch who, having inherited fragments of magic in the way of curly hair or a propensity to freckles, owns ability enough for training. Ze isn’t truly luckborn, a sorcerer’s daughter who inherited fragments from her forebears she’ll then bequeath to her children, adding to the god-gifted powers of her husband’s seventh-born son.
Ze doesn’t know what ze is, for an eighth-born, non-male sorcerer is less anathema in the Citadel than a state beyond rational consideration. Did ze take from Seven’s allotted magic while they shared a womb? Did the gods make a mistake? Do unwanted or unrecognised truths lie in the story of gods bestowing sorcerous ability on seventh-born sons?
Ze doesn’t even know if ze should correctly call hir magic “sorcery”.
Annoyed—at Father, Seven, the gods, Modesty, the candle stubs hidden beneath a loose floorboard and that cursed speck—Luck presses hir lips together, trying to still hir body. Shoulders tensing, ze flicks hir stinging fingers, directing the barest touch of hir magic towards the salt.
The grain flies off the desk, vanishing into the depths of the cat-occupied rag rug before the fireplace.
“Arugh!” Ze smacks hir hands against the desk, too overwhelmed to care about pain, manners or the now-panicked tabby. “It won’t go!”
Modesty lowers her knitting—a thick sock, black wool suggesting Sorrow as its future owner—into the basket beside her chair. Already dressed for the evening, she looks nothing but demure in a high-necked, long-sleeved cream gown trimmed in periwinkle lace; she pinned her streaked hair in a capped bun, an oval locket hanging from a gold chain and a blue sash her only adornments. Sensible brown leather shoes, rows of buttons running up each ankle, peep out from beneath her narrow petticoats. Despite the dust and cat hair clinging to the study’s chairs, drapes and cushions, the room not so much “tidy” as “carelessly comfortable”, nothing spoils her dress.
Luck can’t recall another woman who so evinces the nature of her name.
“Breathe, dear. Remember, it’s more important that you try than that you succeed—but I think you’ve had enough for today. May I say something before you leave to dress?”
Luck, hir spine tensing, straightens. From here, ze’ll most easily reach the pack hidden in the stable; ze can then lead pursuers across the vegetable garden and through the south paddock before reaching the forest growing beyond. Given the zucchini’s dangers, ze’ll be well ahead of witches and Sorrow’s familiars alike once ze reaches the trees—
“Always remember, dear: you are never obligated to dance, walk out, kiss, bed or … or otherwise cavort with anyone tonight! People may pressure you to engage at these sorts of celebrations. Joy’s stories, perhaps, suggest you should? Dance or kiss if you wish, but know that you aren’t required to fulfil another’s desire of you. Nor are you required to desire these of anyone. If you decide to read in a quiet corner of the gardens, you won’t be the only witch doing so.”
Hir knees wobble as ze sags against the desk.
Despite fathers choosing husbands via the convoluted mathematics of alliances and power, the Citadel disdains displaying such tawdriness. Luckborn girls, obedient to the façade of courtship, dance and converse with their suitors as though fathers include such niceties in their calculations. Balls meant elegant dresses, polite smiles and, as the carriage returns them home, Father’s reminders that he plays politics by dangling before the Citadel’s sorcerers the hope of marriage to Seven’s twin.
Little insulted hir more than wasting hours better spent reading or sewing on this cruel charade.
Little hurt hir more than the realisation that, to Father, ze is only a token atop the world’s game board.
“Nor must you partner, even though the Guildmeet often allows the young to find suitors or companions. Wanting to meet people doesn’t mean having to meet someone for courting or marriage. You have your coven—a home, a bed, fellow witches. You don’t need to partner. You’re free to choose what suits, even temporary partners or none at all, and enjoy tonight without expectations.”
Startled a second time, Luck looks up. “Joy said the apprentice before, the last one, married.”
“She did. That doesn’t mean you have to. You may stay here as long as you please, if you don’t mind living with a gaggle of old witches.” Modesty smiles, her eyes crinkling in her warm, grandmothery way. “I won’t leave to partner or marry, so my coven will need to bury me.”
Ze rubs hir fingers over hir hair, heedless of bandaged fingers and aching shoulder. Should ze feel relieved or betrayed? Relieved that someone, unlooked-for, offered hir the words ze needed from Father and Seven? Betrayed that such permission came long after hir flight from family, husband and home? Both? Neither?
“Do most witches marry? Or do they coven? Or want … other than those things?”
Modesty rests her head at a slight angle, lips pursed. “Well … I suppose that a witch who doesn’t wish a traditional marriage will join or build a coven, or live alone. A witch’s lack of respectability, I think, gives us more freedom to examine what the world paints as unquestionable. When we marry, it’s intentional. Something we gladly choose.”
“Oh,” ze murmurs, wondering if other differences follow similar paths. Ze knows ze doesn’t feel whatever constitutes “womanhood”, and books buried in the Citadel’s library gave hir the learning that ze can stop pretending to be one. Books ze found in an offshoot of hir quest to understand why ze senses the soil’s interconnected web of root and fungus whenever ze touches branch and bough. Is everything abnormal so entwined? Does one set of questions always provoke another? “So I could … stay here, or somewhere like, for all my life, without having to marry.”
Only then does Luck realise hir inability to consider a future beyond avoiding the Citadel.
“Of course. I don’t wish any partner, but I like living with others. A coven gives me sisters—pardon, dear. It gives me siblings. Sharing a roof with Joy keeps boredom far distant!” Modesty rises, her skirts swishing, before offering another eye-crinkled smile. “Go and dress, Bean!”
Luck nods, teasing the rug’s worn tassels with hir big toe. “Thank … thank you. I … I don’t want to marry someone. I didn’t want that. I knew that. But I’d like…”
Kissing. Dancing … both in the ordinary sense and in that euphemistic closeness intimated by Joy’s winking manner of speech, a closeness Prospect denied hir. Something passionate and easy, raw and friendly, safe and dangerous … something contradictory and outside Luck’s experience, a want cobbled together from books, overheard conversations and the dreams of a person given cruel detachment in hir unwanted marriage.
Joy’s stories give hir hope of finding the intimacy denied a luckborn wife … if Luck’s nature didn’t cause or provoke Prospect’s coldness.
“Go and dress,” Modesty says again. “When you come downstairs, stop by Joy’s room. You may find her thoughts useful in sorting yours.”
Relieved of the salt but burdened by confusion, Luck nods and flees the study.