Chapter 8: The unexpected sides of courtship and marriage
Copyright © 2017 by Brian Bixby
I’m tired. Listening to Willy was bad enough. I don’t even care why Vesta is here. It’s not like I can stop her. So I plunk down on my sofa, kick off my shoes, lie back and say, “Do you know of a good locksmith that can keep people like you out of my apartment?”
“Strive for wit some other time, Daphne Vane. Try to prove to me that you’re not the idiot I think you are.” Vesta’s voice is unexpectedly sarcastic instead of threatening.
I sit up and take a hard look at Vesta Fox. She is not in uniform tonight. Out of it, she looks amazingly ordinary, a bit plain but in a modestly attractive way: olive skin, green eyes, taller than me but still below average in height. Her outfit is almost an exact duplicate of mine. Wonder if she’s been on a bad date?
“No, I’ve just been cleaning up after yours. Are you so stupid as to not realize what will happen to you if the Council finds out you’re sending off your dates to fuck pigs?” If anything, Vesta’s sarcasm is increasing.
My mother used to pull the mind reading trick on me. I didn’t like it then. But I don’t like Vesta already, so it hardly matters. Still, she has a point, that I’ve screwed up in a serious matter. So I answer her. “I honestly didn’t think of what the Council might do at the time. I was too busy thinking how much Willy was like a pig himself. So how much trouble am I in?”
“None, thanks to me. Willy doesn’t remember what you did to him. He thinks you two went out on a boring date, and you were both relieved to make an end of it. He’ll never try to ask you for a date again.” Vesta sounds more tired than stern.
I sigh, stand up, and head toward my liquor shelf in the kitchen nook. “Since you seem intent on having a talk with me, want something to drink?” I ask.
“Whatever you’re having,” is the response I get. I pour two short glasses full of bourbon, bring them out, hand Vesta one, and retreat to the sofa with mine. I take a sip, and then ask the obvious question. “Why are you covering up for me, Vesta Fox?”
“Because there’s a rumor going the rounds that your father isn’t a human, but a demigod at the very least. And so suddenly a lot of people want you married to their sons.”
“And you disapprove?” I try not to sound too angry.
She takes a big swallow from her glass. “Look, Daphne, I just saved your neck and I didn’t bring anyone with me to beat you up. Can you try to drop the reflexive hostility for a moment and work with me?”
Well, you put it that way . . . I nod.
“Good. That rumor emerged just after All-Father decided he wants to conserve his bloodline by divorcing his wife and marrying your sister Agatha instead. Somehow I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” Vesta snickers.
“Holy shit!” That’ll roil the Council. And did Vesta just imply she knows All-Father is Agatha’s father?
“Holy shit, indeed.” Vesta smiles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile and mean it in a non-sadistic way before. “You are being served up, probably by All-Father, to form an alliance that will dampen down the political explosion that his marriage to Agatha will cause.”
“Like that will ever happen. Agatha divorce Henry? The two of them are made for each other. And to marry her . . .” I realize I’m about to talk out of turn and shut up. Maybe Vesta knows, but I’m not telling her.
“‘Father’ is the term I think you were about to use.” Vesta smirks. “Yes, I know, not that All-Father has ever told me. It will create an enormous stink. Which is why it cannot be allowed to happen. And that’s where your parentage comes in.”
I wait for her to explain, but Vesta’s not having it. “Why don’t you explain it to me, Daphne? You went to college. You’re supposed to have some brains.”
Who’s striving for wit and reflexive hostility now? But she’s right, I can figure this out. “If the rumor about my having a higher status birth was just made up and has no basis in fact, all the families sending their sons to court me will line up against my family. That would make All-Father marrying my sister more politically difficult. And if my father’s actual status is even lower than it’s supposed to be, it could poison any chance of a marital alliance between my family and All-Father. Assuming my mother lied about who my father is.” I toss in the last as an afterthought.
“Exactly. And the only person who knows the truth about your father is your mother, who won’t even tell All-Father. My whole line of questioning the other night wasn’t really about what you did to Maria Tarretti, though seeing what you did to her was quite a shock. I was questioning you and torturing you both to gradually put your mother in a position where she’d tell me who your father is, either to save you or save herself from further harm. But she cottoned to it early on and pulled that chair-shattering stunt to make it clear she knew what I was up to. She was telling me I’d have to cripple you both before she talked, and that was a lot more damage to you two than I was willing to apply just then.”
“Thanks for using me that way,” is my sour reply. Vesta just shrugs it off.
And then I have a thought about a political angle that’s gone unmentioned so far. “Ah, Vesta, seeing as we’re being so chummy and all about you torturing me and my mother, there’s something I don’t get. You work for All-Father, correct?”
Vesta already knows where I’m going with this. Of course she does. “So why am I working against him on this?”
Vesta downs the rest of her bourbon before answering. “Because I only report to All-Father. I work for the Council. And keeping the Council from breaking down is more important than keeping All-Father happy. Oh, and while I am not supposed to have any personal loyalties in this job, your sister is one of the few people I like, and I don’t want to see her screwed over. Got it?”
“Now you know what my priorities are. And now you know why, at least for now, I’m on your side. You don’t want to get married, I know that. Normally, I’d be against you and enforcing the Council’s will. But under the circumstances, I’d rather you didn’t get married to one of guys on the Council’s list because if you don’t, it will make All-Father’s marriage to Agatha less likely.” Vesta watches me to make sure I’m understanding her. And then she adds, “Mind if I ask you a question, Daphne?”
“How did you find out that All-Father is Agatha’s father?”
I think about how to put this. “I used my eyes to force Agatha to answer a question that broke All-Father’s spell preventing her from talking about it.”
Vesta looks thoughtfully at me without speaking for quite a while. “Between that and what you did to Maria Tarretti, some day we need to retest you.” She stands up. “And I have to be going. Thanks for the drink.”
I stand up, too. “Thanks for the confidences. Is there anything I should be doing?”
Vesta Fox looks me over. “Yeah. Don’t paint a target on yourself. Sending that boy to screw a pig was just stupid. And if by some off chance you can get your mother to open up about your father, take it.” And then she departs.
This is all too much for me to deal with just now, so I polish off my bourbon and go to bed. But I have trouble falling asleep. Vesta told me too much and too little. I don’t really understand Council politics, except that family connections are involved. All-Father forcing through two divorces and marrying Agatha would disturb an awful lot of them. And it’s plain weird for the head Enforcer to be siding with me against the Council. Oh, and I should have asked Vesta just what did happen to Maria Tarretti. I must have caused her some serious psychological damage. Normally, I’d regret something like that; it is not what I intended. But the thought of being her brother’s wife and sex slave is so revolting I have to say that Maria deserved whatever I did to her.
These worries stay with me into Thursday. I’ve still not heard from my Mum, so I call Agatha, check with her that Mum’s all right, and then make a date for lunch with her on Saturday. Agatha may not be on the Council, but she’ll be able to sort out what Vesta told me. The only question in my mind is whether to mention All-Father’s plans to her. I want to be honest with my sister, but telling her that is likely to set off a firestorm all by itself.
On to date night the second. The new suitor is tall, handsome, almost forty, widowed or divorced (he’s vague), and completely uninterested in a sexual relationship with me. This is all about constructing a family alliance, as far as he’s concerned, and he goes on about how much power our two families will have on the Council when we join forces. Along the way, he drops hints that he has some demigoddess as his mistress, so he would expect us to bed each other only for form’s sake. At least he takes me to an expensive harborside restaurant. We are both happy to end this date as soon as we finish dinner, with no feelings hurt on either side. For him, it’s not about feelings. And for me, it’s not about marriage, no matter what he thinks.
For once, no god or demigod appears in my apartment when I get home.
Friday, I go for a girls’ night out with several work colleagues. We meet and drink and eat in Harvard Square. And we break up early, because Samantha has to get up early on Saturday. Still, it’s after dark. So I decide to go visit a friend I haven’t seen in a while, someone completely unconnected to the problems I’m having.
There are several bridges spanning the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. But only two of them have trolls living beneath them. The Larz Anderson Bridge, right near Harvard Square, is one of them. I go crawling on its underside to find Larz. (He uses that name with me because he says I can’t pronounce his troll name.)
I find the hidden entrance to his lair by accidentally walking on it, and almost break my ankle with the fall I take. Larz lives in a system of tunnels. Considering how many tunnels there are in Cambridge, it’s a good place for him to live. There’s no light down here in his tunnels, so I just stand and wait.
I jump. My heart almost jumps out of my body. The voice was directly behind me. I spin around, a flashlight turns on, and there is Larz, smiling at me. Never mind that he’s squat and heavy, soot black in color except for his eyes, and that he eats people; he’s a friend.
I smile back, take the flashlight from him, and look around his tunnel. My studio chair is still here from the last time I visited. That makes me feel good; Larz is so sweet to me. I go sit in it, and shine the light on Larz as he comes over and sits down on the ground in front of me. No point in him using a chair: it would have to be immensely strong to bear his weight. Trolls are dense. (Literally.) “What’s up, Larz?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Not much. Damn Canada geese keep finding their way in here and dropping their turds everywhere. I’m debating whether hunting them all down and killing them is worth the risk of being seen.”
I laugh, not too hard, Larz having tender sensibilities. “There are too many of them for that to work. Though a lot of people would thank you for it.”
“Figures. You have any equally intractable problems in your life?”
I sigh. “Too many people wanting to marry me. Is there a name for a group of suitors? I’m thinking they should be called a plague.”
Larz chuckles. “Is it too late for me to throw my name into contention?”
“Believe me, you’re a damn sight better than the two I’ve met so far. But even though I’m not officially a demigoddess, the Council would never let me marry a non-human. A god, a demigod, a regular human, yes; a non-human, no. Sorry, Romeo.”
Larz looks puzzled. “I’m missing something here. So they don’t let one of their own kind marry a non-human, but it’s okay to reproduce with one?”
My turn to look puzzled. “Of course not. Why would you think that?”
Larz looks at me curiously. “Well, you’re one of them, but you’re obviously non-human, too.”