February on Earth is a time for romance, or so the candy makers tell us! In reality, love can strike any time and true romance finds a way. In Elyria, when star-crossed lovers appear, wise folk take notice.
Hîlins reflected upon the words of Seer Hents, “The energy that possesses you entwines your fate with hers. You feature prominently in her future, but the fates do not wish to reveal why. You had best gather your wits because a favorable outcome or great suffering for you both hinges on your actions.“
He had sought the Qindred Seer's expertise to perform a reading on the young woman he'd met just two weeks ago but couldn't get out of his head. It was a long-standing tradition of followers of the Qin to get divinations done on associates new and old to be certain how to proceed, but he had not expected that. It wasn't because she was Neran, or even because of her lofty position as his Aunt Jewasawa's actuary, but there was something remarkable about her that ignited his very soul.
Her name was Ascelera Crey. He'd been introduced to her by his uncle when he first arrived in the port city of Ajort Shajoshles. She had such poise she wouldn't be out of place standing on a plinth, draped in flowing robes like the statues that pepper Qindred temple complexes and gardens. She wore her chestnut locks neatly curled under to rest on the nape of her neck, framing deep blue eyes that sparkled like the ocean. Her voice had glided through the Croçais language as a fish does to water.
What an embarrassment he'd been to his relatives. When she'd spoken, he thought his heart would beat out of his chest but, instead, he'd accidentally stumbled back into his sister, crushing her toes and causing a ruckus. His mother's sister had also been present but, thankfully, not Aunt Jewasawa. Aunt Jewasawa was the head of the household and family operations here in the city, having been married into the prominent Ajoreskajos family. His own family had become a vassal family in the merger, but the union of shipping routes and textile manufacture had been working out splendidly for all. They were even working to develop northern sea routes; the very enterprise Ascelera had been brought on to evaluate.
This was his first time leaving his home upriver and he was determined to not waste the opportunity. Ajort Shajoshles was situated on a river delta, and had access to fertile farmland, favorable trade routes via the river, and a bustling harbor. All roads and rivers in the kingdom led here, in one way or another.
The Ajoreskajos family had been here since long before the Plague and even had their own private docks on the river. His family was grooming him to extend their business into new regions, so he’d been tutored in diplomacy and as an interpreter. This was his chance to prove to his family that he was worthy of the task. He had it all planned out: he would broker his very own trade agreement and he’d do it during this trip. But now his mind was a mess. He had hoped the temple seer would have let him put his mind at ease, but it had had quite the opposite effect!
Though he'd spent the first two weeks giving himself every opportunity to talk to Ascelera, he hadn't yet had the courage to say more than, "In the study," when she asked where his aunt was and a flat, "No," when she'd asked if he had any plans to go to the opera while he was in town. But even though humiliation burned through his veins when they were apart, he felt full of energy when she was near, like they could conquer the world together...if only he could say something!
But now, the Seer's warning unnerved him. Great suffering did not seem worth the risk, he told himself. Especially if he was going to impress his family on the trip. He decided he would fight his feelings and focus, instead, on finding a well-connected trader to negotiate with. Today he was down at the harbor having just left a meeting with a quartermaster who had a couple of names to trade if Hîlins would put in a good word with his Aunt.
Tucking the paper into his pocket, he gazed out across the water. Much to his chagrin, he spied the unmistakable sashay of her at a nearby pier. Drat, he had been doing so well avoiding her for the last couple weeks. There had been quite a few close calls–she seemed to be everywhere–and he'd even had to run away once or twice. He had an almost maddening sense that she was always just on his periphery.
He turned, looking for an alley or tavern to make a quick escape but this area of the harbor was largely commercial and crowded with squat buildings for shipping companies and their warehouses. Seeing a narrow alley, he ducked into it and wound through a series of ever smaller alleyways until he saw an exit to the main, harborside road. Pinned sideways, he shimmied through the last few feet blindly and stumbled out upon the main road, colliding with an unseen obstacle and tumbling to the muddy ground.
Quickly springing to his feet, he sought the source of the mishap and discovered a pile of heavy sailcloth that had fallen from an overturned cart. It was only when the pile of cloth started shouting for help that he realized a person was trapped underneath. Several passers-by helped to right the cart and rescue the thrashing victim.
Looking down with disbelief, Hîlins locked eyes with a tousled and embarrassed Ascelera.
“What are you–?” they said at the same time. And again, “I thought I lost–.“ And a third time, “Are you following me?”
The pair looked incredulously at one another as Ascelera was helped to her feet. Without warning, a feeling of elated gaiety came over Hîlins then and he laughed, despite himself. He looked at her hair and clothes, caked with mud, and then to himself, who had fared no better, and laughed so hard he felt tears welling up in his eyes.
Seeing that she was unhurt and that the pair seemed to know one another, the crowd dispersed. Ascelera stood indignantly as he wiped his tears away with a hand, smearing much across his cheeks. Then she, too, began to laugh at their bungling. They laughed about it as he escorted her to her home in the Neran district and still smiled blithely as he returned to his own home.
After that, they were practically inseparable. Whenever not working, and even sometimes when they were, they shared glances and smiles and little moments. As spring began to blossom, so did their affections.
“Let’s have our fortune read together,” Hîlins said to Ascelera one midafternoon while strolling through a park near the same Qindred temple where he had first got a foretelling about her. He led her across the park and toward the garden-like temple complex.
“I can’t go in there,” she said when they reached the entrance.
He turned to her, confused, “Neran are welcome here, I assure you.”
“It’s not that, Hîlins. My family and I, we’re Virtori.”
He blinked a few times, not certain what to say. Finally, he blurted out, “Why?”
She was taken aback and cocked her head to the side, “I might ask you the same thing!”
He flushed with embarrassment but hesitated to leave. He looked back at the temple grounds, with its garland-laden pergolas and symmetrical paths leading to alcoves and gazebos housing statues of the Qin. He thought he spied the Seer in the window of the main temple.
“I—I have to go,” Ascelera said carefully, “but I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He nodded and she walked off toward the Neran district with eyes downturned. Her usual poise was absent. All his life he had lived in To’reshian lands. It had never occurred to him that anyone wouldn’t be able to visit the temple for any reason. He walked to the main temple seeking answers. Seer Hents was in another session, so he waited. His next appointment showed up, a noble woman, and Hîlins began to sweat. How long would he have to wait? He decided he would wait for as long as it took to get an answer. He didn’t want anything to come between him and Ascelera.
As the session came to an end, Seer Hents poked his head out and asked his next appointment, “Would you mind giving me just a moment? I can see a crisis brewing even without my instruments.” He nodded toward Hîlins and the woman smiled and nodded.
“Come, lad,” Seer Hents waved him into his forecasting room.
Hîlins sat down, feeling optimistic, “Wise one, I—”
The Seer raised his hand and Hîlins fell silent. The Seer handed him a set of crystal-shaped horoscopy glyphstones and motioned for him to cast them on the table between them. The stones bounced on the felted surface and two rolled off the edge of the table. He went to reach for them, but the Seer stayed his hand.
“You can’t change your fate that way.”
“What do I do?” he begged.
Seer Hents scanned the glyphstones, including stooping to see how the two on the floor had been cast. He thought for a moment and then said, “You know the Romance of Ne’ran and Mydra, do you not?”
“The lovers existed in two different worlds. Unable to surrender their hearts or their nature, they suffer eternally. You have three paths before you: to accept your heritage and walk away from the shore, to denounce your heritage and abandon yourself to the water to either sink or swim, or to cultivate a place like the rice farmer where you both can thrive.”
Hîlins wandered home, lost in thought. What was he to do?
He moped about for days but tried to hide his distress when she was near. Her presence was effervescent! His sister tried to get him to open up, but he didn’t know what to say. His aunt even reached out to his parents to ask for advice, but they wouldn’t know how to help without knowing what was troubling him. He thought about talking to his parents himself, but how do you tell your family that you’re considering eloping into another religion and another tribe? That just wasn’t done. His family was his lifeblood. How could he choose love over duty? Yet he could not set his heart aside. Every time he saw Ascelera’s ocean eyes, he was captivated anew.
She asked him every day what troubled him, but he saw in her eyes that she was agonizing over the issue as well. He was remiss to give it voice, lest manifesting it would sever the ties that bound them. She turned out to be braver than he.
“I do not know how to reconcile my faith and this flame in my very soul, Hîlins. Are we doomed to suffer a life of discord? A life half lived?” she asked him one evening, brushing his hair from his face as they sat overlooking the river.
“I—I think so. Why?”
“I think my family would take you too, if you were willing,” he said and squeezed her hand. “So that is not the issue. Okay, next question: Would you convert to the Qin to be together?”
She shook her head, but said, “Is that necessary?”
“Well I—,” he said sheepishly, “I suppose not, but were we to have children…”
Her eyes went wide, “Oh, yes, I suppose that’s true. Um—I think I’d want to let them choose their beliefs for themselves, just as we have.”
“I like that idea. So, we can remove that from the equation, agreed?”
She nodded and sighed in relief.
“Then the next question is, would you be willing disjoin your family and join mine?”
“Are you proposing? If so, you’ve chosen an odd way about it,” she laughed nervously.
“Yes, I mean no, I mean…I want to. But it isn’t so easy for us, is it?”
She blushed, “No, I suppose not. Falling for you was as easy as breathing. There must be some price to pay for these feelings.”
He kissed her hand and took a deep breath, “I have to admit that I don’t think I could do it. I don’t have it in me to leave my family. I’m sure your family is very nice but, well, I’m To’resk. You understand, right?”
She looked thoughtful, “To your culture, family is everything. It’s practically a doctrine! My family moved here when I was young, but I remember my hometown in the grasslands up north.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Not really. My home is here. I just remember how independent the adults were. How they encouraged us children to envision a better future for ourselves and then make it happen. It felt really exciting, as a child.”
“I’m not sure I’m following,” Hîlins said tentatively.
“Shush you, and listen!” she chided him. “It was only after I came of age that I gained a new perspective. Since we were immigrants, I went to the only Neran school in the city and they taught us about To’reshian culture and idiosyncrasies, but from a Neran perspective. It was only after my schooling, when I had to try to make it in this city, that I realized how family-centric everything is. And since I’d been apart from all that, I was ill-equipped to deal with professional life.”
“I hadn’t even thought about that,” admitted Hîlins. “You seem well-adjusted now. Aunt Jewasawa wouldn’t have hired an outsider, so she must have seen something in you.”
“I worked my butt off, that’s what!” she laughed. “I consumed books, engulfed myself in the culture, went to operas, talked to anyone who would give me hints on what I called ‘beyond the veil’. And one day, I realized quite suddenly, that I was on the other side. That was the day you arrived, actually. I’d never been introduced to To’reshian family the way your uncle introduced me that day. I might have cried if I hadn’t been so nervous!”
“You were nervous? I almost trampled my sister!”
She laughed and wiped a tear away, “What a pair we are. But my point is that I have been, maybe unconsciously, using the wisdom of my culture to pursue yours.” She gave him a fond shove.
“Oh,” he said simply. Then he started as what she was saying sunk in, “Wait, so you would be willing to leave your family and join mine?”
“Yes, I think I would, as long as I still saw my parents often.”
He kissed her. He couldn’t help himself. He was elated beyond words!
There was just one more hurdle: the betrothal. He would need to convince his family.
That evening after dinner, he reached out to his parents and told them that he had something important to say. Then he gathered his aunts and uncles and sister together in the sitting room.
He addressed them simultaneously, those in the room and those back home, “My bonded family, I believe the time has come to pursue my marriage.”
At his proclamation his sister looked surprised, Aunt Jewasawa appeared satisfied, his other aunt looked uncertain, and his uncle looked inspired.
His mother responded first, “This is so unexpected. I suppose your Aunt can solicit for a matchmaker and your father and I can arrange a visit.”
“No need, mother!” he replied exuberantly, “I’ve already found the right merger.”
Aunt Jewasawa smiled and gave him a nod from where she sat. Did she know?
“The Crey family is a smart match. Their family specializes in logistics and Aunt Jewasawa already employs my intended match as an actuary, isn’t that right?” Hîlins looked at his aunt with pleading eyes, hoping she would approve of the match.
She stood and addressed the group, “The Creys are of Neran gentry stock. Just a single family unit, they immigrated from the town of Ballyshire a decade ago and established a humble moneylender’s shop near the piers.”
Oh no, Hîlins thought, she’s making them sound mediocre, not competent and sophisticated.
She went on, “From that foothold, they have used their opportunities wisely. Quite cunningly, in fact. Rather than remaining aloof, they have secured several prominent merchant companies among their clientele. Even the Açartî noble family, in fact. The daughter was top of her class at Valeron Academy and apprenticed with my husband’s accountant, which is how I found her. The least notable member of the family is the father who, from what I gathered in my inquiries before I hired her, is a quite admired navigator who runs ships to the northlands and so is gone quite often.”
Hîlins waited with bated breath. She had done her research, of course. She wouldn’t have hired Ascelera if she hadn’t.
“What has the Seer said?” asked his father.
Hîlins perked up to respond but Aunt Jewasawa motioned him to hold his tongue. Surprisingly, she nodded to his uncle who told them all, “He says they are perfectly suited and that their proper union would bring wealth and prosperity, but a selfish one would bring ruin to them both and all who hold them dear.”
“I think we had better expedite our plans to visit then!” exclaimed his mother. “Let us meet this girl and decide what to do.”
As was customary, Ascelera’s parents were sent a formal letter of intent and a pair of songbirds. Aunt Jewasawa met with them to cover the details of courtship proceedings and potential betrothal. Diviners specializing in mergers and marriage were consulted, a researcher was put on the Crey family’s heritage, and the family accountant began researching the Crey family’s fiscal ancestry. By the time his parents arrived, in a week’s time, the official courtship was ready to begin if the family approved. Hîlins was anxious and excited at the same time and Ascelera was positively radiant.
Normally the betrothal ceremony would happen in the Sun Pavilion at a Qindred temple but, since the Crey family was devoutly Virtori, it was arranged to happen at a private chamber in the Town Hall, with the mayeur and representatives from both churches.
Hîlins and Ascelera sat at opposite sides of the room, as was tradition. Their relatives lined up between them. It was a grueling day of questions and examinations. Stacks of ledgers and dossiers were discussed at length and percentages agreed upon. The church representatives drafted preliminary outlines for how any ceremonies would need be handled. All the while, Hîlins and Ascelera sat in stoic silence. Showing signs of boredom or impatience was bad luck at the betrothal ceremony and neither wanted to hurt the chances of their families coming to accord.
In the late afternoon, Hîlins’s parents stood and addressed the assemblage, “Hanry and Rasalerd Crey, it is our pleasure to submit, for your approval, this contract of betrothal between your daughter, Ascelera, and our son, Hîlins, on behalf of House Vousaçalît under Ajoreskajos. If approved, courtship will commence immediately.”
Ascelera’s parents appeared delighted, though it was hard to tell since they were comporting themselves as was proper for the occasion. They read over the contract and signed in duplicate, then rose and held the contract by one end. Hîlins’s parents took the other end and then, as a unit, they handed the contract to the mayeur.
The mayeur addressed the priests, “Have you come to accord on the timing of the wedding ceremony?”
The Virtori chaplain smiled at her Qindred counterpart and rose. “Yes, your Honor. The optimal place will be just offshore to the south of the river delta, here,” she pointed on a map. “The proper time is when Luna and Sanguinis align under Mydra with Gulain in retrograde.”
The mayeur looked surprised, “Tomorrow?”
Both priests nodded.
He stamped both copies without further delay–which wasn’t binding but was still customary–and handed a copy back to each parent. “Honor be to your ancestors. And good luck!”
There was no time to delay. The wedding ceremony had to be prepared immediately, lest they miss their window and have to wait years to wed. The newly betrothed couple and their relatives worked through the night, acquiring the proper attire, the coronals and rings, decorating the wedding barge, and drafting the marriage contract.
In the golden sunset the following day, Hîlins and Ascelera stood before the mayeur on the wedding barge and took their vows. The mayeur placed matching coronals of oak woven with plum blossoms upon the couple’s heads, then they exchanged matching gold rings with one another. Then was time to bestow their family members with matching coronals. Ascelera placed them on Hîlins’s parents and sister while Hîlins placed them on the heads of Ascelera’s parents. A long, white ribbon was affixed to the wedding couple’s coronals by their parents, binding them together, and then wound out between all the relatives in attendance that symbolized the linking of their families. At last, the ceremony culminated with Hîlins and Ascelera’s signatures upon the marriage contract placed on a dais in the center of the proceedings.
Hîlins felt the vital essence of his new in-laws almost immediately and cast them a gleeful look. Ascelera gazed blithely at him from across the dais.
The mayeur then addressed all those in attendance, “By the power vested in me, I hereby declare the union of House Vousaçalît and House Crey under House Ajoreskajos through Hîlins and Ascelera to be complete in accordance with the law, the gods, and our ancestors. May you bring dignity everlasting to one another.”
Aunt Jewasawa looked fondly at her brother–Hîlins's father–and repeated the old adage, “When Fortune visits, invite it to stay.”