Georg has always known how his life would go. He would take over as Lord when his father died. But when his brother, Marcus, who has been studying with the wizards, suddenly dies, Georg is chosen to take his place. He is far from happy about this, but a member of his family has always been expected to work with the wizards. When they refuse to take his other brother, Edward. So he agrees to go.
Once there, he realizes there is something peculiar about his brother's death. Nobody seems to be willing to tell exactly what happened to Marcus. So he sets out to find out what happened. He begins by befriending the companions of his late brother. He soon finds out that his brother died from attempting to use a powerful magical relic. He also finds out that he also has the ability to use this relic. Will he agree to use this ability and accept his new position with the wizards?
The day began quietly enough. Georg bolted breakfast and set out on a brisk ride. By the time he returned, it was nearing . In the courtyard, he passed clusters of travel-stained men and women who sought audiences with his father. Household servants filed outside, bearing food and drink for the peasants.
Georg led Bruno to the stables, waving away the grooms. He took pride in this horse. He owned many others, but his father had given him Bruno to care for, a special birthday present. You are my eldest, my heir. And my pride. Even as a boy, Georg understood the implicit contract.
Bruno was a fine old horse, of good breeding, but inferior to probably a third of the others. Georg's father did not take silly risks. And he let me love an animal I might otherwise never have deigned to ride.
Breakfast could be taken alone, and supper was often a public affair, but the meal was a family occasion. Harold had grown more adamant about that over the past few years. He was still outwardly healthy, but two winters ago he had taken ill, and the physicians feared for his life. He wanted Georg to learn as much as possible before ascending to lordship.
Georg felt ready. His father had never been particularly secretive, and in fact had encouraged his son to take an interest in everyday matters of administration. Georg was in no hurry, however. He was fond of his father, and didn't want him to die, though it was not something he feared: it was natural for a father to die before his son. He also didn't want to have the question of an heir raised. He had resolved several years ago that Marta would be the mother of his children; unfortunately, her elderly husband had not yet succumbed to any illness.
Georg washed before lunch, vaguely muttering the words of the purification ritual. His mother insisted upon it. Georg liked her, and she liked her family well enough, but she clearly would have preferred to spend her life in a religious house. The instant Harold died, Georg knew she would shut herself away, and happily live out her days in prayer. Her religious zeal was tempered by a sense of familial duty--which had been strong enough to prevent her from fleeing the marriage to Harold--and of bettering the religious community in other ways. Georg's brother Edward had been given to a religious house. If she had lived past her sixth birthday, his sister Hannah might well have been pledged to a life of religious seclusion, rather than a political marriage; Harold and Matilda had argued heatedly about that, behind closed doors.
His parents sat at the table, looking up only when Georg entered. The ale and meat that normally made up the meal were absent; only bread and water remained.
Someone had died.
"Markus," Harold said, before Georg could ask. He held up a letter. "Two days ago."
Georg sat down. He hadn't seen Mark for several years, since his brother had gone off to fill the family's traditional duty and privilege of giving someone to the Veneficus Domus. "What happened? An accident?"
Harold shrugged weakly. Markus had been a joy, bright and mischievous. "They didn't say. Only that he is dead, and they offer their condolences."
"I'll set off today to collect the body. I'll bring a priest, mother." Matilda did not approve of wizards; as far as Georg knew, she had never written to Mark after he left home.
"They--this is difficult," Harold said.
"I loved him too," Georg replied, not looking at his mother. As far as Matilda was concerned, she had lost a son eight years ago.
"As we have been reminded," Harold said, aimlessly tapping the letter, "this family has a privilege extending generations. We are a friend to the wizard's house; we benefit from that friendship. As a sign of this, we are allowed--and required--to give one of our family over to that house."
Georg nodded, beginning to see why Matilda was so unhappy. Soon Edward's life of prayer would end.
"They have requested a replacement," Harold said. "You."
Georg blinked. "But...I'm not-- Who will replace you?"
"Edward will be withdrawn, when the time is ripe."
Belatedly, Georg made a motion to ward off death. "Father--if we must fill Mark's place, and Edward is already being removed--"
"They will not have him," Matilda said. "Not after he has lived a godly life."
"They say that some of Edward's vows may render him useless," Harold sounded tired, not venomous. "They specifically requested you."
I can't. All his life, it had been so simple. Learn, until his father's death, then take his place. So simple. Wait for Marta. Father children. Teach them.
Now...everything was ruined. What did he know of magic? He wasn't a scholar of any kind, certainly not of arcane subjects. I can't. I don't want to.
"You must leave with all possible haste," Harold said. "Today."
"And--retrieve Mark's body, stay for the burial, and then return?" It was something. Precious little, but something.
"They are keeping him there," Matilda said.
* * *
"...so, that's food and sleep areas," Georg's guide said. "That's all that'll matter to you for a while." The man had prattled for the past half hour, scarcely pausing to take a breath, much less allow for questions. He was about Georg's age, smiled altogether too much, and sported a brown beard splotched with red patches, making him look even more ridiculous.
The guide, Frank, pushed open a door. To Georg's relief, this one led outside. He inhaled deeply, trying to purge his lungs of the alien atmosphere of the corridors.
"And for a bit of closure, here's the cemetery," Frank said. "Your brother's over there on the end, the most recent."
Slowly, Georg approached the fresh grave. There was a simple headstone, his brother’s name, the date of his birth and death. Is that all? Mark was so much more than two days....
"I'm terribly sorry for your loss. And I hope your family isn't too upset over the burial arrangements, but it avoids the possibility of awkward questions. Sometimes nasty things--stick. Much easier to deal with it here, where we've got qualified people.... Are you all right?"
"No." Georg spoke slowly and distinctly. "My brother is dead, and now you're telling me that some sort of curse might have been laid on his bones?"
"No, not at all," Frank almost laughed. "It's very rare that anybody comes in contact with anything that could, um, curse their bones." He looked amused at the expression. Georg wanted to hit him. "And that's only the most powerful of our brothers. But people do worry and, well, it's better just to have a standing policy in place." He shrugged. "Notice how nobody cares when religious houses bury their people on site, or dig them up and sell the pieces. I'm afraid you'll have to get used to that sort of discrimination."
Matilda had only one son, and he was now a secular disappointment. She was doubtless thinking that she should have run off as a virgin. "You don't understand. I'm not a wizard. I've no vocation."
"Neither do I," Frank laughed. "Not one whit of innate talent. But that doesn't mean I can't do some things. I've a head for figures. And for that matter, once you've found the proper formula, it often doesn't matter if a parrot says the words or mixes the potion."
"I don't want to deal with that."
Frank shrugged. "Think of yourself as a lay brother, if you like. The wizards--the real wizards--will do their magic, instead of praying, and you'll help with the scut work. Tending gardens, fetching ingredients, keeping records. It's what most of us do anyway."
"Is that--is that all Markus did?" Georg managed, thinking that it might help Matilda, just a bit. She wouldn't read a letter from him, of course, but if he asked Harold to tell her....
"I'm afraid I didn't know him all that well. I'm sure we could find someone for you to ask."
"How did he die?"
"I spent that last two weeks on a shopping expedition,” Frank said apologetically. "I was supposed to be gone until the day after tomorrow, so I have a free schedule, so I get to be your tour guide."
"I'd like to see the Veneficus Altus."
"Yes, of course. We took the liberty of scheduling you an appointment. You can see him five days from now."
"I just sacrificed my life for you people--"
"With all due respect, Georg, you seem quite alive to me. We all have unpleasant duties. You got stuck with one of your family's obligations, that's all. If you ask me, you're still better off than Markus."
"So the Domus has two brothers from my family."
"No. We have one at a time. I believe that's the arrangement your family's had for some time. An insider in the house, preferential treatment, a say in the way things are run here. Not an altogether bad deal. Don't ask for sympathy from me. My father worked his fingers to the bone to get me in here."
"Your choice, I assume."
"I don't pay the bills." Frank's blackened mood lifted visibly. "But it's not a bad place. You may even come to like it."
* * *
"All is as well as can be expected. Markus was given an honorable burial, and his grave is well tended. The man who is introducing me to life here was not present when he died, so I regret that I have no further details on that score. Please do tell Mother that my guide has informed me that very few men here actually engage in the practice of magic of any kind, let alone the truly profane. Markus was almost certainly never in contact with anything that could have endangered his soul.
"I hope that Edward is well, and resigned to the new duties he must eventually assume. I confess that I envy him, but I understand that there is nothing to be done, and that I am serving my family as best I can."
Georg read back over what he had written. He wanted to ask his father to take care of Bruno, but that was ridiculous. Harold might be offended that his son considered him so poor a horseman as to need reminding. I wish we could have animals. Certain high-ranking wizards were allowed pets, and some had horses. Georg's requests had been refused. A man of his rank would have no need to travel by horseback. At most, he might ride in a cart. In a cart. Like Frank, the prattler.
"Give my love to all," he wrote.
He hoped Harold would read between the lines, and realize that Georg was thinking of someone outside of the family. Harold might even know about Marta; Georg suspected that his father had some experience with adultery. But Georg would not stain Marta's honor by committing their sin to paper. Anyone might find the letter. Matilda might not care anymore, though a few days ago she would have feared for her son's salvageable soul. But Edward would not look kindly on adultery; since Georg was out of reach, all of his disapproval would fall upon Marta.
I hope she understands. He hadn't had time to get word to her, and couldn't very well send letters to Johannes's wife. Hopefully, she would pick up the real story, that he had been summoned away by legitimate family obligations. I didn't abandon you. I never lied to you. I really did intend to marry you.
Wizards did not marry. It was the vows, Frank said. Georg didn't quite believe that, especially since he'd not yet been asked to take any vows whatsoever. Perhaps the prohibition's intent was simply to mark wizards off as special. A true wizard forsook the world and cloistered himself, devoting his life to study.
But wizards did leave the Domus. Georg hoped that he might be able to, someday. If Edward had a child...the child could take Georg's place, Edward could return to a life of prayer, and Georg could freely adopt his lordship. And Marta. If she'll wait...but what a thing to ask.
If only he'd realized sooner that it was Marta that he loved. Marta, and not Isabeau, who fell ill and died anyway. After he'd fallen out of love with her. After Marta had prudently entered into a lucrative marriage with a man who should have left her a widow years ago. Bad timing, that was all. Bad timing that left him an heirless bachelor so late in life, when he might have fathered a child to offer the wizards....
"My regards. Georg."