Ivan and the Witch Girl

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was not quite like other people. It was not just that her skin was darker and her hair curlier than her parents'. It was not just that she was very focused and neat and organized. It was that when she wanted someone to die, they did.

Once upon a time in the Empire of Belze IV, which had once been a colony of another place but now was not and no one recalled the name of the other place, there was a girl who was not quite like other people. It was not just that her skin was darker and her hair curlier than her parents'. It was not just that she was very focused and neat and organized and began running her father's household with great efficiency when she was eleven. It may have been that she had an odd knack for investments that had made her father quite wealthy. But most likely it was that when she wanted someone to die, they did. This was rather awkward for her father, as a few of the someones who happened to die were visiting his household to negotiate business partnerships of one sort or another. It should be noted that one cornered and attempted to rape a maid, another beat one of the errand boys with a candlestick, and the third had very shifty eyes. The fourth was a prospective suitor who was overheard boasting that he would “beat the devil out of her” soon enough after their marriage, and wasn't afraid of any girl with “witch eyes”. Rede did not have “witch eyes”. By all accounts, her eyes were perfectly normal, only brown instead of blue or green or grey, which would have been acceptable within her family tree.

Rede was quite comfortable with her life, except that she sometimes wished she had more self-control. It wouldn't do to let her anger run away with her. And so she practiced the best she could, on beetles and such, but it was very difficult to be angry with a beetle. And beetles were nicer than most people, she felt, so it was a shame to kill them.

Rede's mother was quite horrified at the idea that her daughter had (at least) four kills to her name and was only just approaching marriageable age. “How will we ever find her a husband?” she demanded. “And every wife wants to kill her husband at some point in the marriage – what will happen then?”

Her husband agreed that it would be difficult, which is why he concocted a plan.

“Rede, darling,” he said, eyeing her latest outfit with distaste. Rede had a fondness for burnt orange at the moment, and it was hard on his eyes. “I have found a husband for you. And this time you can't object,” he said, holding up his hand to forestall her objection, “because you already know him and haven't once killed him.” He glared down at her. “I will be very unhappy if he dies, Rede,” he said sternly. This had not stopped her before, and he didn't expect it to this time. “And not just me. Alyse will be very unhappy, too.” He paused for effect. “I have decided that you will marry Ulrik.”

This was a conundrum because Ulrik was despicable. But he was also Alyse's brother, and Alyse was Rede's best friend. And for reasons known only to Alyse, Alyse loved Ulrik despite his despicableness.

“Father, you can't be serious,” Rede said, glaring at him.

“I am completely serious. You will go together to the Market next month; the emperor's man will agree to the match; it’s merely a formality, after all.” Because who else would volunteer to marry a witch-girl? He smiled a very self-satisfied smile, believing he had bested her.

“I don't think Ulrik will marry me, father,” Rede said stubbornly.

“Oh, he's already agreed to overlook your...peculiarity. Not all husbands would be so accommodating, dear.”

Rede rolled her eyes. “Alyse or no Alyse,” she said, “Ulrik knows what will happen to him if he tries to touch me.”

Her father winced. “I'm confident that in time he will win your affections, daughter. It's happened before, although not quite in these exact circumstances.”

Rede did not share his confidence. She also didn't want to go into a rage and kill her best friend's brother. So something had to be done. She just didn’t know what.

***

There was a man who was the governor of a frontier district. This meant he was on the edge of the empire and was more or less in charge of a stopping-over place for the emperor's troops as they headed into the unknown full of sass and bravado and returned limping, hobbling, and/or shuffling miserably. It was a nice enough place, as such places went, with delightful farms and schools and little cottages, and most of the troop encampments were hidden behind very tall cedar hedges, planted by the man's great-grandfather for just that purpose. The man's name was Ivan Daranyi and he was desperately in need of an assassin. He'd tried hiring three already and none came back to claim the reward money, and nobody was lining up to be the fourth.

“There's a girl in Thetaton,” his aide said, skimming through a letter. “Or a woman, rather – preparing to attend her first Market. Apparently, local legend credits her with four kills, and not a shred of proof it was her.”

“Poison?” Daranyi asked.

“Witchcraft,” the aide replied. “Apparently.”

Daranyi shook his head. He couldn’t totally discount the existence of witchcraft (or anything, for that matter), but he did know what existed within the confines of the empire. An empire that had stubbornly refused to be widened since it ceased being a colony. He said as much.

“Seems some folks think she's an import – or her mother was,” the aide explained.

Daranyi straightened up in his chair. “She's part foreign?” he asked.

“It's what people are saying.”

That was interesting. There were people outside the empire – certainly, there were people. But they didn't interact with the people in the empire and they certainly didn't procreate with them. Daranyi had always thought that was odd; generally, people would procreate with anything that looked vaguely like another person. And there was a bit of trade back and forth across the border, in between invasions. It was certainly possible that a foreign woman had gotten mixed up with a local man (or the other way around) and the result was a witch-girl.

“Is she for hire?” he asked.

“No. The family pretends she's perfectly normal,” the aide said.

“So why bring it up?” Daranyi asked, irritated.

“She's going to the Mar-ket,” Munir said meaningfully, raising his eyebrows.

“You want me to marry an assassin? A witch-girl assassin?” Daranyi demanded. “You must be out of your mind, Munir.”

“There's no one else for hire, at least not for this job,” the aide said. “It's the witch-girl or no one, and you only get the witch-girl if you marry her. The girl will attend the Market with her best friend, Alyse Suidop. There are rumors that the girl is drime’ad to Ulrik Suidop, brother to Alyse. Apparently, Alyse is along to remind the girl not to kill anyone, particularly her intended.”

“Well if the girl is pledged, the emperor's man won't give her to me,” Daranyi said. “So all of this will be a horrible waste of time.” He looked down at his desk.

“Don’t be a fool,” his aide chided him. “This is Thetaton we’re talking about; a quiet word with the emperor’s man and you can have any girl you like.”

“And what if the witch-girl doesn’t like me rigging the system? What if she wants to marry this Suidop person? It’s not as if I particularly want to be killed by my own assassin.” 

“Well, if she does try it, you have the amulet,” the aide reminded him.

“Stupid thing probably doesn't even work,” Daranyi said, but he made no move to remove the cord from around his neck. He'd worn it since the day his father died and no longer needed it.

***

Alyse came along to the market even though she was already drime'ad to one of the boys in Thetaton. It wouldn’t hurt to look around a bit, she told Rede. And anyway she’d always wanted to see the Market.

The Market wasn’t an actual marketplace in the literal sense, of course, but in the figurative sense of everyone present (more or less) being in the market for a spouse. The Market in Thetaton was held on the grounds of the Imperial House, where the emperor had never resided but quite possibly might should he ever deign to set foot in Thetaton. In the evenings there would be dances and card games and long romantic dinners; during the day there would be a lists of activities to tactfully throw eligible young men and women together in appropriate situations. It was where men and women who disliked the idea of arranged marriages headed off to, and it was where one could find the Imperial Registrar of Thetaton, whose permission was necessary for any legal marriage to take place.

Alyse was immediately in heaven, Rede just as instantaneously in hell. With so many smug young men and conceited young women swarming about, it was only a matter of time before she accidentally killed someone. They were standing in the middle of a chattering swarm when two men approached and gave their greetings.

“Good afternoon, valeena,” the taller of the two said formally, inclining his head. His companion touched his forehead respectfully.

“Good afternoon, variha,” Alyse replied, touching her own forehead and nudging Rede to do the same. Rede had planned to do it anyway and was irritated at her friend for making her look like a bumpkin.

“We wondered if we might join you for the next entertainment?” the taller said. “I am Daranyi and this is my aide, Munir.”

Alyse made a strange choking sound which Rede chose to ignore. “Actually, variha, we were on our way to the tea room,” she said firmly. She was hatching a convoluted plan in which Ulrik was convinced to fall in love with someone else, and needed a quiet place to think.

“Then we shall accompany you,” Daranyi declared. Munir looked askance. Alyse protested: “Oh, but, the tearoom is hardly the usual spot for…for non-females.”

Rede smothered a laugh.

“Then we shall have the pleasure of being the handsomest fellows there,” Daranyi said confidently. To forestall any further protests he took Rede’s hand, placed it on his arm, and headed off in the direction of the tearoom. Rede was a bit relieved that he knew where it was, as she didn’t have a clue. She was surprised when Daranyi led them to a tiny table tucked into an alcove on the furthest side of the tearoom (which was ostentatious and a bit ridiculous, like the rest of the Imperial Residence, and over-decorated with golden griffins). She looked around for Alyse and saw Munir steering her to a table on the opposite side of the room. The room, as she had suspected, was entirely populated with women (Munir and Daranyi being the glaring exceptions). She sighed and sat down at the little table.

“How are you finding the Market?” Daranyi asked, settling onto his own tiny, spindle-legged chair as if it were perfectly normal to do so.

“I have only just arrived, actually,” Rede told him. “Alyse and I came downstairs from being shown our rooms and there you were.”

Daranyi grinned. “Well, lucky me.”

“Not really,” she said. “As we are only here for the experience; both of us are drime’ad.”

She expected some sort of shock or outrage or anger: the usual responses of a man who feels he is entitled to something which has been marked off-limits. Instead, he only shook his head a little and smiled. “Now, leena, we both know that is a terrible lie. Ulrik has no more intention of marrying you than you do him.”

Rede blinked rapidly and tried to sift through everything she knew about the man across from her. Surname: Daranyi. Clothing: expensive, but tasteful. Age: Slightly older than herself. Manners: polite, but not deferential. Knowledge of Apparent Strangers: Spot on. And then there was Alyse’s little choking fit when she heard his name. Which all combined to mean he was not just some random man looking for a wife. She knew her response ought to be stuttering and denial or perhaps how did you know? but she couldn’t quite manage it.

“Alright, Daranyi,” she said instead. “Obviously my engagement is less than definite. Why do you care?”

Bluntness and hostility had sent men packing before; even non-witch-girls had that effect on men. But it didn’t work on Daranyi.

“Simply put, leena, Ulrik is in my way. I have every intention of leaving this place having secured you as my wife.” He leaned back in his chair and studied her.

Rede was opening her mouth to say something in response to this outrageous statement when the delicate chair beneath Daranyi shattered, depositing him unceremoniously on the floor and bringing the curious eyes of the entire room upon them. Daranyi chose to rise to the occasion rather than attempting to sink into the floor. He rose, swooped a grand bow to his audience, took Rede’s arm, and sauntered out of the tea room, nodding and smiling to everyone as if it were all a planned performance. And maybe it was, Rede thought cynically. No man in his right mind ought to have leaned back on such a spindly chair like that.

He led her off to a private study from which he efficiently ejected the single occupant (an elderly man dozing on a chair) by suggesting that dinner would shortly be served. He then settled Rede in the chair and stood facing her.

“I am a very traditional man, leena. On the frontier, we still speak the old language and keep the old ways. And we are still fighting a war that everyone else has apparently forgotten about. I was drime’ad to a girl from the frontier when I was very young; she died soon after I reached my majority. I have, let us say, a personal interest in the man responsible for her death,” he said. His fists clenched and loosed.

“You want him to die,” Rede said calmly. “I understand that. I’ve wanted several people dead, as you are probably aware.”

“Yes,” Daranyi said, agreeing to both statements simultaneously to save time.

“It’s clear I can help you,” Rede said, watching his face closely for signs of insanity and/or barely suppressed rage. He appeared to lack both. “But where is the benefit for me?”

“My aide has it all worked out,” Daranyi explained. “You handle this problem for me, I’ll settle you somewhere on my estate where you can live quietly and I won’t bother you again.”

“But we will have to marry,” Rede objected. “If you have an estate, that means you will need an heir. Which I will not be providing.”

Daranyi smiled crookedly. “Yes, I had considered that,” he said. “But many barren couples choose to adopt an heir; it is a charming tradition.”

“One of which the emperor does not approve,” Rede reminded him.

“When you have handled my problem, that will no longer be an issue.”

***

“He wants you to kill the emperor?” was what Alyse would have exclaimed had Rede been foolish enough to confide in her. And then Rede would have pointed out that powerful, famous people are never killed, they are assassinated. Which meant her status would rise from murderess to assassin all in a day’s work. Although likely it would take more than a day, since assassinating the emperor would mean coming in sort-of-close proximity to him, which a girl of no title and status might have difficulty doing. Of course, marrying one of the emperor’s governors would potentially help with that. Rede thought Daranyi’s plan was a good one. He’d even asked her to explain how her “gift” worked. She’d tried as best she could. But when it came right down to it, there just weren’t the right words. It was like opening a door into someone else’s mind and finding the line that led to their heart and telling it to stop beating. But of course, there weren’t doors or lines or words. She paced up and down in her room and wondered if Daranyi had succeeded in bribing the Imperial Registrar yet. Alyse would be angry, obviously. And confused – it wasn’t like Rede could explain why she was running away with a stranger. But she was. Daranyi’s deal was too good to pass up. Even knowing there would likely be future “problems” for her to deal with wasn’t terribly worrying. She could always refuse. Or just kill him. Really, there wasn’t any downside she could see. Except for the part where she had to assassinate the emperor because his stupid, endless war to expand the empire had gotten the girl Daranyi loved killed. Well, the girl Daranyi probably loved. He hadn’t actually said as much. It was possible he was just angry that a nice possession he’d been waiting for years to claim and finally had within reach had been irrevocably destroyed. Rede shrugged. She’d never much cared one way or another who was running the empire. And she could always change her mind if she met the emperor and decided she liked him more than Daranyi. Daranyi was risking everything and her, not so much.

Someone knocked on the door, but it wasn’t Daranyi. It was Ulrik, and he had worked himself into a blotchy-faced rage.

“What do you think you’re doing, whoring yourself out to some fancy-pants governor?” he roared, having evidently forgotten that his (former) intended was an alleged witch-girl. Rede studied him and wondered if Alyse would really miss him all that much. She sighed; maybe if she had siblings she’d understand the bond.

“If you mean why did I have tea with a perfectly polite man and then rescue him from a humiliating situation and let him go off somewhere quiet to soothe his pride, I would have to say manners,” Rede informed him.

Ulrik spluttered and stomped his feet. “No, stupid girl! I mean why is your name down with his on the registry? The registrar said he’d never even heard of me!”

Rede disliked being called stupid. It was making her brain do very rude things, like reach out little snaking tendrils to find an opening into Ulrik’s fat head. She reeled herself back in with great difficulty.

“I’m sure it’s a clerical error, Ulrik. Why don’t you show them the letter from father?”

“Because I can’t find it!” Ulrik wailed.

Rede definitely did not smile. The offending letter would not be resurfacing.

“I’m very sorry, Ulrik. Perhaps you could write to father? Maybe he came to an understanding with the governor after we’d already left. I know I wasn’t your first choice – I know father talked you into a corner about all this. And now he hadn’t even the decency to write to you.”

“Right, not decent at all, letting me find out like this. And you! Didn’t even tell you!” He stomped some more and used words that weren’t especially polite and generally made a scene in the hallway (which fortunately was empty) but at least his ire was directed at Rede’s father instead of her, which she found preferable. It was her father’s fault she had to get rid of Ulrik in the first place.

Alyse was more difficult to deal with, but fortunately, she didn’t see her again until after the wedding, at which point there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

***

As it turned out, assassinating the emperor was so easy it was almost boring. Rede had imagined complicated plots in the Imperial Palace, perhaps having to impersonate various officials and getting wound up in intrigue and drama. But instead, it was apparently polite for an imperial governor to present his new bride to the emperor. And so there were nearly three hundred people in the crowded imperial receiving room when the emperor suddenly dropped dead on the carpet. Rede and Daranyi were behind a lot of other people with a much better view, and so asked very loudly (along with everyone else) what was happening even though they knew exactly what had happened because they had caused it.

Of course, what happened next was particularly surprising (although not to anyone who has ever studied history): the once peaceful Empire of Belze IV devolved into civil war. Or it would have, probably, if the emperor hadn’t had an heir who everyone liked more than him anyway. So that was okay.


Submitted: May 20, 2021

© Copyright 2021 hometowngirl. All rights reserved.

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