Rowena had hidden her face within her hands for hours, so long that Witter had to wonder if she knew that it was day and not a dark night outside the windows of their castle. He cleared his throat softly, afraid to disturb her, and continued to wait patiently at the other end of the banquet hall table until she wanted to speak to him.
Finally, after a few more tense minutes, Rowena’s sobbing quieted, and she put her palms down on the table. Witter could hardly recognize the woman his wife could become, though he tried his best to conceal his alarm. Her dark gray eyes were red-rimmed, and the flush had bled down into her normally fair cheeks. Her nose was also tinged with pink though it was a bright, beautiful summer day. Her hair, which normally fell in a sleek curtain below her shoulders, was tangled and limp.
“I simply cannot believe what Salazar has become,” she said, sniffling. “When we met, when the four of us worked as one to build our magnificent school, he was a different man. He was honorable, and now… he has become so foolish.”
Witter stood up, moving closer to her and placing a hand atop her own. “I, too, recall Salazar as a noble man, my dear wife. I cannot explain what has become of him.”
Rowena sighed. “I am convinced, Witter, that he is to blame for the boy’s behavior. His arrogance and dishonesty must simply be a part of the family line.”
“Perhaps you are right, Rowena. Fortunately, our lovely daughter seems to have inherited your good sense, or at least it is evident to me in her recent decision.”
Rowena smiled weakly. “Yes, naturally fair Helena would be unimpressed by his display. I worry for her, I must admit, because of what her future may hold.”
“Helena is far too kind and beautiful to never find a suitable husband.”
Rowena’s eyes met her husband’s. “If she does not, Witter?”
Witter said nothing, and Rowena collapsed anew into an ocean of tears.
The sound of Rowena’s wailing was not lost on her daughter. Helena had confined herself to her private chambers ever since the failed tournament, and she had begun to feel guilty for alienating her parents for so long. She closed her eyes, sitting perfectly still before her mirror and wishing she could incinerate the drawings in her bookshelf without having to reach for her wand. Sighing, she picked up a brush, running it idly through her hair and ignoring the sounds of crying that carried up the stairs and through the floor.
Her blue eyes stared at the bejeweled comb as she considered her mother. They had always been close friends; the pain Helena felt seeping into her heart with every shuddering rise of her mother’s chest was a reminder of that. To heal Rowena’s wounds, Helena would need to find a husband, and she needed to do it quickly. She ran the brush through her hair several more times, repeating to herself mentally with each stroke: You will find a suitable husband. You will have a proper marriage.
Helena stopped suddenly, staring at her image. She had been quite close to that, hadn’t she? Despite the barbaric and dishonorable way Venn had acted at the jousting tournament, she could also remember the warm, gentle way he had gripped her hand just days before at the festival for St. John’s Day. She could also recall the butterflies swarming in her stomach as she took him out into the castle garden on their first evening together, and she could not ignore the way he kept asking questions when spending time with her, as if he were genuinely interested in getting answers to them. It struck Helena that he might have been the best she could expect.
Yet, he was not good enough, not for her. To admit it filled her heart with woe.
She stood up, leaving the comb behind and crossing the room to her wardrobe. She had a fine gown stashed away in there, having saved it for her family’s attendance of a nobleman’s wedding that was one day away. Helena touched the thin fabric gently, forcing herself to smile. What better opportunity than a wedding to believe in love again? Moreover, what better place to locate a new selection of available bachelors?
It was a beautiful day for a wedding, and yet things felt imperfect to Venn.
He held two rings, one simply a more feminine version of the other, which he had taken from Roldan. The latter, the true keeper of the rings, had taken a few moments before the ceremony to speak with his lady, Emilia, and her family. Cepheus, a bundle of nerves, had gone up to his chambers to await the arrival of the bride and her family, hinting at practicing swordplay to get his mind off of his churning stomach. Thus, only Venn remained in the quiet room next to the banquet hall.
He had not told his friends of his failure at impressing Helena. They might even expect her to make an appearance today, to circle the room on Venn’s strong arm and glow just as Priscilla had following her engagement. For one, there seemed to be no sense in ruining Cepheus’s mood with a story of love lost. More to the point, however, Venn had not worked out for himself precisely where he had gone wrong.
“My former sword looks well-placed on you.”
Venn turned, though he felt his uncle’s eyes on his back before doing so. “It fits comfortably in my father’s holster,” he commented. “It is a pleasant sort of weight.”
“Many battles have been won with that sword,” Salazar said. “To bear it is to bear the glory of my name, as well as your own. You must never forget that, nephew.”
Venn sighed. “Thank you, Uncle.”
Salazar frowned. “What is troubling you?”
“Is it not obvious? My loss of the fair Helena weighs heavily on my mind.”
“Who is to say that she is lost? Perhaps she disliked the violence of the fight…”
“She did not come to congratulate me when I won the duel, nor has she sent me any owls since her untimely departure on that afternoon,” Venn said, anger in his tone.
“Women’s hearts are more fickle than the wind,” Salazar replied dismissively. “Do not count this as a loss, Venn. There are many fair women to be found, I assure you.”
“I have seen them all,” Venn retorted. “None are as beautiful as my Helena was.”
Salazar clucked his tongue. “What have I told you about allowing the girl to get the best of you? Perhaps her mother has burrowed too far into your mind as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rowena has spoken of strange things lately, and she has demonstrated an increasing desire to integrate our ways with those of the Muggles. The idea is as preposterous as a peasant marrying one of our own. I assure you, I intend to mount my defenses, lest she try to destroy what we built with her ever-changing mind.”
“Do you no longer believe Helena to be an appropriate match for me?”
“I admit that I did not predict this change of heart when I suggested the idea,” Salazar said. “The weight of an intelligent mind can be difficult for a woman to bear, naturally, and I might have thought about the girl, but I, too, was lost on her beauty.”
Venn put the rings down on the table. “I will not permit you to speak that way.”
“Permit me?” He almost laughed. “Are you already so inundated by love, my boy?”
“Tempestuous she may be, but I will not allow you to sully Helena’s honor.”
“Now, Venn, listen to the counsel of a wiser man,” Salazar replied, putting his hand on Venn’s shoulder. “Do not waste your time with a woman who does not value your sword and promise. Come and help me work to reverse Rowena’s poison at Hogwarts. I imagine working on something constructive will clear your mind.”
“I will not,” Venn said. “Now release me, Uncle, so that I may serve my duty.”
As he approached the door, Salazar turned to face him. “What has happened to you that you would strive so much for a lady whom you know so little?” he called.
“She is the only one I have ever been able to tolerate,” Venn said under his breath.
Helena could not help having her spirits lifted as the wedding began. The first thing she noticed was the beautiful setting; the castle looked just like the ones in the fairy tales she’d read as a small child, and it was even more magnificent than her home. The spacious banquet hall had been lined with exotic, expensive orange blossoms, and the flowers led the way out into the small courtyard. The bride was expected to emerge here and enter the banquet hall in a magnificent procession, and Helena had taken to passing the few moments that remained by imagining how she might look.
Suddenly, as Helena admired the courtyard, a beautiful figure appeared within it. She wore a dress of deep, regal blue, which was lined with a forest green fabric, and a crowd made of emeralds sat upon her light hair. Indeed, emeralds sparkled at her neck, wrists and ears as well, giving her the look of a true princess. In one hand she carried a brilliant bouquet of flowers to match the hall’s decorations. Her other hand held gently to one of her father’s as he escorted her down the center of the room.
Helena watched the bride pass, her eyes following the regal train of the lady’s gown. As her gaze brought her attention to the front of the room, she felt a paralyzing sickness overtake her stomach. Venn stood there in his fine red jacket, patiently awaiting the bride’s arrival from his place at the groom’s side. Inwardly chiding herself for not expecting his presence, Helena forced her eyes to look at the floor.
“Lords and ladies of the court,” said a man standing between the proud-looking Cepheus Black and his wife-to-be. “The noble families who are to be joined this day thank you for your presence and assistance in witnessing this glorious moment. Today, as a community of magic-born people, we will unite a son of the House of Black, Cepheus, with a daughter of the House of Pyrites, the beautiful Priscilla.”
Priscilla blushed slightly, which only made Cepheus beam all the more. If he battled with his nerves on this long-awaited day, no sign of it could be detected in his smile. At the wizard’s instruction, he reached forward and took her delicate hands in his.
“Cepheus, is it your intention to remain faithful to this lady, to honor her with your sword and heart, and to ensure her safety and happiness for the rest of your days?”
“With honor, I say that it is,” Cepheus replied.
The man now turned to the bride. “Priscilla, is it your intention to be a support to this nobleman, to trade affection for his gifts, and provide him a suitable heir?”
“With honor, I say that it is,” Priscilla answered.
“Please cross your wrists,” the wizard instructed, and he withdrew an ancient-looking wand from his white robes. He pointed the wand at the pair of hands and whispered an incantation that sounded like a melody. His voice was the only thing that could be heard in the room, and all eyes were focused on the two beams of bright white light that were released from the tip of the wand. They wove around the hands like snakes, tightening until they encircled the crossed wrists perfectly.
“With this spell, I declare that you are bonded for life, and the purely magical blood in your veins shall intermingle in the bodies of your offspring. Your union will be a representation of the eternal power of magic and its dominance over earthly things.”
Helena glanced up, careful to avoid Venn’s eyes. She had only been to so many weddings in her young life, but she had never heard the ceremony extend beyond the simple life-bonding spell before. What was all this talk of magical supremacy?
“I now present you to society as Lord Cepheus and Lady Priscilla Black.”
With the man’s final words, the white light that joined Cepheus’s hands with Priscilla’s faded, and they turned to face the audience, their fingers still entangled. Priscilla looked positively radiant with joy, and Cepheus’s smile grew ever larger. Helena watched them proceed back down the aisle in a shower of orange blossoms, feeling a slight twinge in her heart as she realized that she, too, could have had a moment like this one. Behind her, Venn had noticed her presence for the first time.
He broke rank, leaving Roldan standing alone at the front of the room and moving to Helena before she could exit into the courtyard with the other guests. “My lady…”
Helena stopped, knowing that she should walk on. “Yes, good sir?” she asked.
“I wonder if perhaps you would join me… in the kitchen.”
Helena frowned. “What has informed your choice of this location?”
“It is nearest, and I believe it will afford us a moment of privacy.”
Helena glanced toward the courtyard, where several handsome young men were greeting the bride and groom. She looked back at Venn. “This appears improper.”
“I suppose it is,” he admitted, glancing away from her. Helena had never objected to mildly scandalous acts before, but perhaps he had underestimated her anger.
“I will allow you to escort me to the kitchen,” Helena said finally, offering her arm.
Once in the kitchen, Helena closed the door, turning to face Venn with her arms crossed over her chest. “For what purpose did you request such privacy?”
“I would like to apologize if my behavior at the tournament was offensive to you,” Venn said, and Helena noticed that his tone lacked its typical arrogant note. His eyes continually flickered between her and the table, as if he were unsure of himself.
“Yes, I was offended when you did not fight honorably,” she replied coolly.
“I suspected that this was the case,” Venn responded, and Helena fought the urge to point out that one would have to be quite thick to even come close to missing the significance of her departure. “I thought that perhaps you would appreciate my display, Helena, given your similar reliance on mental quickness and strategy.”
Her mouth opened slightly. She was flabbergasted. “Your desire to achieve the upper hand, however cunning it was, is not a trait that would be valued by my family.”
Venn’s gaze fell upon the table again. “I see my gross misunderstanding in full light.”
A silence formed between them like cobwebs in an unused space. Helena pondered his response, seeing another example of him falling short of her true expectations. However, she could not deny the earnest look in his eyes nor the comfort of his face.
“Do you swear that you behaved dishonorably only to impress me?” she queried.
Venn looked up, nodding. “I swear by my sword, my lady.”
Helena swallowed. “I forgive you for your error, Venn.”
An expression of relief broke out upon his face, and Helena felt a rush of warmth and familiarity enter her veins. She stood still as he approached her, noting that he wore no gloves. His hands took her own lightly, and he looked into her brilliant blue eyes.
“Does your forgiveness carry with it the intention to maintain our agreement?”
Helena thought briefly of her mother and the way that Rowena’s tears had bloodied her heart that very morning. She thought of Witter, overjoyed at the opportunity to escort his only daughter to her groom. She thought of Venn’s soft touch on her skin.
She thought of her drawings, and her dreams, and never having to be lectured again.
“Yes, I would like to marry you,” Helena replied, stating it firmly.
Venn bent slightly, placing a kiss on her cheek and holding it there for a long moment. Helena closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of him, and then she moved and placed a few kisses of her own on his face, and even down along his neck. They stayed there for a moment, sharing bodily warmth, hoping that no one entered the room or opened the door. For just a moment, they never wanted to be apart again.
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