Ashworth House looked fragile, from the point of view of passing travellers who managed to look through the complex network of concealing and obscurification wards that provided the first line of defence. It perched on a hillside, a mixture of a dozen different styles from right across the Allied Lands, as if each generation of the family had added a whole new wing to the house. And yet, Melissa Ashworth knew, as she walked through the wards, that the house was far from fragile. The nexus point pulsing below the giant building ensured that no conventional attack could hope to breech the defences.
She felt the pull as soon as she passed through the last ward, an insistent tugging that compelled her to walk towards the centre of the house. Gritting her teeth – she was eighteen, not a naughty little girl to be summoned – she resisted the pull as best as she could, dragging her feet as she walked into the house. A handful of servants bowed to her as she passed, then faded away into the back of her awareness as the tug pulled harder. The Matriarch of House Ashworth was clearly impatient. By the time she reached the stone doors that barred the way into the central chambers, she was practically running – and steaming with humiliation.
The doors opened as she approached, revealing a single spotless room, empty save for a set of paintings on the wall, a wooden table and a pair of chairs. One of them was empty, Melissa noted as she stepped inside; the other was occupied by her great-grandmother, the Matriarch of House Ashworth. The compulsion snapped out of existence as the door closed behind her, but she knelt anyway. There was a long pause, then her great-grandmother rose to her feet.
“You may rise,” she said.
“Thank you, Lady Fulvia,” Melissa said. No one dared address the Matriarch by any other title, even grandmother. “I thank you for summoning me.”
“You may be seated,” Lady Fulvia said. “I trust your exam results were satisfactory?”
Melissa felt her cheeks burn as she sat down and looked up at her great-grandmother. Lady Fulvia was tall and inhumanly thin, with a face so pinched with disapproval that she looked as though she was permanently sucking on a lemon. It was a testament to her power that she was still alive – and that no one dared to mock her, even in private. Melissa would sooner have dealt with her father than the aging harridan. But no one would say no if Lady Fulvia chose to make Melissa’s business hers.
“I believe I passed,” she said, finally. “But we won’t have the full results for another week.”
“I suppose not,” Lady Fulvia said. “It was my fault for sending you to that school, even though it was quite unsuitable for one of our bloodline.”
“You told me I could not share the school with the Ashfall Heir,” Melissa reminded her, daringly. “And so I went to Whitehall instead of Mountaintop.”
“How true,” Lady Fulvia agreed. “But we still expect you to do your very best.”
Her voice hardened. “And you seem to have failed to make friends with Void’s daughter.”
Melissa winced at the cold scorn in Lady Fulvia’s voice. No one had known Void had a daughter, right up until the moment she’d arrived at Whitehall. The Lone Power was so eccentric he hadn’t even taught his daughter basic magic, although she had learned very quickly. But by the time Melissa had received orders to befriend the girl, it had been too late.
“A girl who saved the school, twice,” Lady Fulvia said. “A girl who crippled Mountaintop.”
“Yes, Lady Fulvia,” Melissa said.
“And you have failed to befriend her,” Lady Fulvia said. “That does not speak well of you.”
Melissa cringed. Lady Fulvia never hit her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. She had other ways to discipline them. None of them were remotely pleasant.
“But, no matter,” Lady Fulvia said. “There are other, more important issues to discuss. You are a young woman now, are you not? The measurement of blood-to-blood proves you are healthy and capable of bearing children?”
“Yes,” Melissa said, embarrassed.
“Good,” Lady Fulvia said. She gave Melissa a tight smile. “Because you’re going to get married. The Matriarchy of House Ashworth will fall to you, one day, and it is important that you have both the right husband and the right father for your children. I have selected you a suitable man.”
Melissa felt as though she had been punched in the gut. She’d known her marriage would be arranged, but she’d always thought – her grandfather had promised her – that she would have the final say in who she married. To hear Lady Fulvia say, so casually, that her husband had already been selected … she stared, unable to conceal her horror. There was no point in trying to argue, or fight. She knew the Matriarch all too well. Lady Fulvia would simply override whatever she said and the wedding would go ahead anyway.
“My Lady,” she managed finally. “Who have you selected for me?”
“Gaius, of House Arlene,” Lady Fulvia said. “He recently graduated from Mountaintop with impeccable marks and strong magic.”
It took Melissa a moment to place the name. House Arlene wasn’t a strong house, not by the standards of Ashworth or Ashfall. Their very lack of strength, however, made them ideal partners for Lady Fulvia. She could practically dictate the terms of the marriage contract, knowing they would have little choice, but to accept. But … what little she had heard about Gaius hadn’t been good. Women talked, after all, and stories were shared. Few girls had dated Gaius twice. She would have to write to them and find out why.
“You will be formally introduced to him at the Cockatrice Faire,” Lady Fulvia continued, seemingly unaware of Melissa’s innermost thoughts. “The wedding will be held on the final night of the Faire, once all the contracts have been signed. You and he can then enjoy the joys of married life.”
Melissa coloured, then frowned. “Lady Fulvia, I …”
“This is a great opportunity for you, and for your House,” Lady Fulvia continued, smoothly. “I would take it greatly amiss if anything was to interfere with the planned wedding.”
Shit, Melissa thought.
She hadn’t wanted to get married until after her graduation – as a married woman, she might not even be allowed to return to school – but she knew there was no point in arguing. Lady Fulvia would have had the contracts drawn up already, then gone through the formalities of gaining the approval of the family’s adults. The only person who might have been able to say no was Melissa’s father – and he’d died years ago. And she was not of age. She couldn’t refuse for herself.
“Go back to your rooms and prepare yourself,” Lady Fulvia ordered. “We will leave for Cockatrice in four days.”
Melissa winced, inwardly, as her mind caught up with what she was being told. Cockatrice. Of all the places they could hold the Faire, it had to be Cockatrice. It was not enough that she had to be pushed into a loveless marriage, was it? She had to endure her nuptials under the eyes of Lady Emily, Void’s daughter and Baroness of Cockatrice. But again, there was no point in arguing. Lady Fulvia had made up her mind.
She rose, bowed again, then stalked out of the door. There were letters to write, then clothes to pack. And then …
My life is going to change, she thought, morbidly. And who knows what will happen then?