The Intractable Question (38/141)

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Vasilver House gathered for breakfast at ten-thirty, which was a compromise between Wisteria’s father, who prefered to rise with the sun, and her mother and Byron, who felt that noon was more than early enough to awaken. Wisteria’s compromise was to filch food from the kitchen whenever she was hungry, but to sit with her family during meals and, if she didn’t feel like eating then, push small quantities of food about her plate while everyone else ate. After all, the ‘meal’ portion of the occasion was merely the excuse for gathering: the real point was to be with one’s family and guests. Wisteria wasn’t sure if food served an actual purpose in crafting bonds between people, or if other humans just needed excuses to group together and talk. But the experimental evidence of some years of timing her meals to coincide with others had shown that it didn’t have an impact on the way she bonded with people, so Wisteria had given up on the inconvenience of that aspect.

Several years ago, Mrs. Vasilver had forbidden business as a topic of conversation at the breakfast and supper table, a move Wisteria had supported even though Wisteria herself was one of the most likely to talk shop. The purpose of family meals was to communicate with the family, and neither her mother nor her youngest brothers had any real interest in business. Her father had held the line against barring talk of commerce at dinner, however: they had too many dinner guests who were businessmen, and the middle of the day was a convenient time to discuss issues that had arisen in the morning or early afternoon.    

Father and Mother were, as usual, at opposite ends of the breakfast table, with their children between them. Today, Mitchell and David bracketed father as they chattered away about a two-week hunting party in the spring they’d been invited to by one of Mitchell’s friends. They were still trying to persuade Father to let them accept. Byron devoted himself to coffee and silence. Mother contemplated her offspring as she picked at an omelet.

In an effort to connect with her mother, Wisteria had been reading some of the same novels she did. Her mother’s taste ran to tragic love stories, which Wisteria found by turns bewildering, absurdly implausible, and fascinating. The amount of information that normal people could purportedly transfer by looking into one another’s eyes was astonishing. Wisteria never saw anything but whites, irises, and pupils when she met a person’s gaze. The current story they were reading was set in the Abandoned World not long before Ascension. The characters tended to the insipid and Wisteria found the demon-possessed male protagonist rather horrifying even when he wasn’t outright assaulting the female protagonist. The story’s most intriguing facet was the author’s interpretation that the Abandoned World had once been a harsh but habitable place that, over generations, became almost completely inhospitable. The inhabitants of the story lived in the sunless, near-lifeless land of legend, but amidst the ruins of a dying civilization. They survived by breaking up old wooden houses for fuel, growing fungi for food in cellars and caves, and scavenging the remaining canned goods and preserved meat from an earlier and less-destitute age. Wisteria wasn’t sure that it made sense, but it gave the book a verisimilitude many Abandoned World stories lacked, and a grim urgency. Without the Savior, these people were sliding into a certain oblivion all the more convincing for the details behind it.

Wisteria had just decided to ask her mother what she thought about that aspect of the novel when Mother turned to her and asked, “Since Lord Nikola is…uninterested, dear, have you given any consideration to other matches?”

Wisteria blinked at her. “No?” She did have notes on at least a half-dozen other men of appropriate social status, age, and fortune. But those were all from before she’d asked her father about introducing her to Lord Nikola, and Lord Nikola had been far and away her first choice from among them. And…well, she didn’t have her heart set on Lord Nikola, but she’d thought to give other parts of her a chance to recover before she made another attempt.

“You ought to, Wisteria,” Mother said. “You’re not getting any younger.”

“Leave her be, Mother.” Byron glanced up from his coffee at last. “Last I checked – which would be about three hours ago – Vasilver Trading’s not so poor that you need to hawk offspring. Rest assured.”   

“Byron, this has nothing to do with business,” Mother told him.   

“Of course it has to do with business. Marriage is a business,” Wisteria said. “It’s an alliance between families for mutual benefit and sealed by flesh and blood. It is the most basic form of commerce, which is odd when you consider how stunningly complex it is in terms of the entanglement of lives and commitments involved. Byron is merely concerned that I do not possess all the requisite skills for it—”   

“I did not say that!” Byron jumped to his feet and planted his fists on the table. “I never said that!”

“—which is a reasonable concern, I am sure we all agree. Please sit down, Byron.” Nearly everyone gets married. Which is not the same as ‘everyone’. And I am as far from ‘everyone’ as one gets.

“Look, Teeri, you want to get married, that’s one thing.” Byron straightened his jacket and resumed his seat. “But there’s no excuse for Mother – or Father—” he directed a look at their father, who was engrossed by his breakfast “—to badger you about it at the breakfast table.”

“So when’re you gonna propose to someone, By?” David piped from his end of the table.

“No one needs to badger me, either. Shut up, Davey.”

“Mother isn’t badgering me,” Wisteria said. “Did you have anyone in particular in mind, Mother?”

“Well. That nice Mr. Worth is still single.”

“Do you have anyone new in mind, Mother?”

“What’s wrong with Mr. Worth?”

“Nothing is wrong with him,” Wisteria said. “But introductions between us did not prove fruitful a year ago and I don’t imagine a renewed acquaintance will have better luck now.”

“But time may change a man, dear, and perhaps, since he hasn’t found anyone else…you never know,” Mother said.

The last time we spoke, Mr. Worth called me an unfeeling cold-blooded lizard and said that he’d sooner wed a greatcat, Wisteria didn’t say. There were some truths even she’d learned not to repeat to her family. “Trust me, Mother. This time, I know.”

“She badgering you now, Teeri?” Byron asked. “Sounds like badgering to me.”

“What about Lord Comfrey?” Mr. Vasilver said.

Her younger brothers perked up. “Saints, marry Lord Comfrey!” Mitchell said. “Comfrey Viscountcy’s got the best hunting grounds in all of Newlant.”

Across the table from Wisteria, Byron grimaced into his coffee. Wisteria shook her head at her father. “That’s not a practical match.”    

“What? Why not? He’s a good mind for business, solid fortune, title, about your age,” her father said. “What’s the objection?”

“He’s much too far above me? He’d never consent to the match.”

“But Lord Nikola was a count—”

“A count’s heir. And Anverlee County may be much larger but it has not an eighth part of the wealth of Comfrey Viscountcy,” Wisteria pointed out.

“And he’s a bit…” Byron trailed off.

“A bit what?”

Byron rubbed the back of his neck. “Sarcastic. Don’t think you’d get on.”

“Oh, yes.” Wisteria nodded concurrence.

Her father harrumphed. “You might at least meet him first.”

“I should be perfectly happy to be introduced,” Wisteria said. “If the opportunity arises. But I think arranging an opportunity with the goal of betrothal in mind is unadvised.” Even her mother nodded to that. Wisteria nibbled at a crepe, contemplating the intractable difficulties of the marriage question. “This would be much easier if one wasn’t obliged to unite so many roles in a single person.”

“Beg pardon?” Mother said.

Wisteria fluttered the fingers of her left hand. “I am seeking one man who is well-bred, well-educated, of some consequence in society, whose own person and also his relations and connections will be a good fit for Vasilver Trading, whose personal holdings will be of value to us, who will be my companion and lover for a lifetime, who will be father to my children and guide them as they grow – this is an impractical amount to expect of a single individual.”

Byron snorted a laugh. “So ought to marry two or three men, one for each of the different parts?”

“Exactly,” Wisteria agreed, pleased that someone understood. “At least. Of course, they’d need two or three wives each – I cannot be all women for all things myself—”

“Numbers might get unwieldy,” Byron said. “What with each wife needing her own set of husbands. And so forth.”

“True. Perhaps we could arrange some overlap?”

“Wisteria…” Her mother covered her eyes with one hand, a familiar gesture of exasperation.

“Please don’t be facetious, Wisteria, Byron,” Father said. “Your younger brothers are at an impressionable age.” David stuck his tongue out at his father at this.

“But—” I am not being facetious. Wisteria realized before speaking that this would be ill-received. Instead, she tried, “Of course I don’t mean literally having multiple spouses.” Though now that Byron had mentioned it, it sounded like a good idea to her. “But you have to see how unrealistic it is to hope for one person to fulfill so many needs.”    

“No marriage is perfect, dear,” her mother said, not taking her hand from her eyes. “One must learn to compromise.”

“Of course, there will always be compromises. That’s what people do. But would it not be more rational to have a system that put less pressure on two people to be everything to one another?”

“That’s the way it’s done, Wisteria,” Father said.

“Not in all countries. In Myantia—”

Her mother cut her off with a little shriek. “I knew we should never have let her travel, Ethan.”

“It’s the way it’s done in Newlant, Wisteria, and we are Newlanters and will abide by tradition. Am I understood?”

“But—”

Father stood. “Just accept it, will you? Don’t question everything! Do you honestly think you, one woman a mere twenty-six years of age, can devise a better system than one that has stood the test of eight centuries?”

But it’s changed several times since the year zero; even in Newlant, current marriage contractual language is still being altered by participants. Wisteria held back the words. This must be another one of those topics she wasn’t supposed to talk about, or not talk about the way she was, or some equally maddening and pointless distinction. “Very well, Father.” She picked a few more bites off her crepe, then excused herself from the table.


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