They took a taxi from Soho to Fitzovia, the traffic boxing them in as crowds of people streamed past. It was London, and the public ignored the traffic lights in favour of circumnavigating the stalled traffic.
Kyria's father shifted besides her, fiddling with the pendant around his neck. A brief flare of power and the pungent-lemon smell of sumac filled the cab.
The spell was subtle—if Kyria didn't have the same talent in spice magic, she wouldn't have recognised it.
It was a well-trodden argument—the use of magic on the public. While magic wasn't hidden, it was separate from society like the rich and famous were separate from society—there, but not part of day-to-day life. And as such, people didn't know what to look out for.
It wasn't fair, and Kyria's fingers prickled with the need to yank the spice-coated pendant from her father's throat.
"It's just a little luck, Kyria. What they don't know won't hurt them."
She bit off her reply, and stared out the window.
A horn beeped, and a gap opened up in the traffic. Their taxi darted through.
Kyria resolved on ordering a bottle of wine as soon as they got to the restaurant—the sooner the better.
When it was her father that ordered them a bottle, she should have known something was up. He never drank wine in public.
They worked their way through the wine steadily, until the dregs were clinging to the glass lip of the bottle. They resolutely did not talk about her brother, Daemin.
He'd decided the best way to further his journalistic career was to cover a war being waged against the magic peoples of the sub-Sahara.
It was neither the approach her father would have preferred, nor an approach their father would settle for.
Her father had settled for Kyria's career because it was in London, and it was safe. Not what was expected from a woman of magical heritage, but not putting her magical heritage at risk either.
"There are so few of us." He'd not shouted when Daemin left. He never shouted, just talked as if he expected to be obeyed. "The magical tribes of the world can look after themselves, they can tell their own stories. Your place is here."
"We were from one of those tribes, once upon a time." Daemin paced, from one side of the room to the other. Kyria sat there, hands clenched in her skirt. "Don't you think we owe it to that 'heritage'?"
"And you're going to leave your sister here, to defend the bloodline?"
"Papa," Kyria had interjected, "it doesn't need to be defended."
So no, they did not talk about her brother.
Instead, they talked about nothing at all—the play they'd been to see, her academic career, the old magical families.
The wine was fuzzing her mind when he ruined it.
"I have entered your marriage price into The Quarterly," he said, naming the newspaper that came out four times a year. A paper that would be released the following day. A paper whose deadline for submission would have been two months ago.
Right after Daemin had left.
"Kyria. Are you listening? I have put forward a proposal." His fingers crept across the table to take her hand. Her pulse rattled in her head, in her stomach, her fingertips. His grip tightened, and she realised her hands were shaking.
"You did what?"
He opened his mouth to reply, but her brain caught up with events. She stood and yanked her hand back. She teetered on her heels, people turning to stare.
She may have drunk a bit too much.
Right. Okay. This was not the time for a succinct counter-argument. Home then.
Her father stood and she held her breath against his smell. She didn't want the old comfort of his clove cigars and musk aftershave to wrap itself around her. She didn't want his hands reaching for her, imploring.
She pulled off her heels. She'd manage the walk to the curb and the nearest taxi without them.
When she woke, there was nothing but her bed and the purring of her cat as he butted up against her chin. She scratched the cat’s ears, then froze, memory returning.
Right. First: up. Feed the cat.
She glanced at her phone. Twenty-five missed calls, thirty messages. That had been quick. She opened the first—a message from the dean professing sympathy, then asking if she wanted time off. She deleted the message, instead replying to one from another lecturer that suggested drinks.
She didn't need to hide herself away. She'd not become a leader in this field, not become known for her stances within the magical community, by hiding away. She needed this to not be happening.
What to say though? "My father is a man of tradition. It is not unusual for the great magical families to do things which their heirs don't agree with."
It was still not enough. Her father was a traditionalist, but a marriage price? Even the oldest families didn't sell their daughters anymore.
All the alcohol in the world couldn't make up for the fact he was trying to sell her off.
Ah well, it would be worth a try though.
She went to make coffee. She bypassed the machine, and instead pulled out the roasting pan.
First, the cardamon. The scent reminded her of her mother. Kyria's family used spices to channel their power, and it had been her mother's favourite base. She took a pinch, hummed over it in her palm, and flicked it at the pan.
Metal shone red hot, before it cooled to a steady heat. The coffee beans went into the pan by the handful, enough for two cups of coffee. Kyria stirred the beans, the repetitive actions calming.
The call came after the first cup of coffee. Kyria supposed she should be grateful, both for the identity of the caller, and for the timing.
She had wondered if Daemin knew.
"They have phones out there?"
"I traded one of your birthing charms. What the hell is going on?"
She paused, then: "I feel like I should be asking that question."
This time he replied with silence. Then: "You thought I knew?"
"You are a lot closer to him. You spent the last month living at his."
"Kyria." His voice was tight. "Your dissertation was on the inherent patriarchal structures of old magical society. You spent three months ranting at our pub nights about arranged marriages. I'm not stupid—if I'd known, I would have stopped him."
"It is your fault, you know." In the corner, her cat munched on his food, the sound loud in the silence following that pronouncement.
"How is it my fault?"
"You're the one tramping about a war zone, risking your life. It made him want to . . . "
He cut her off. "Settle things."
"Settle me." She tightened her dressing gown. "Got to protect that magical legacy."
"Not your fault." She leant against the kitchen wall, head falling back to thump against the plaster. "Not really."
"If he's stupid enough to try and force the matter I'll step in as familial opposition. Not ideal, but . . . "
"Better that than some asshole trying to run my life." She needed to get off the phone and hug her cat. "You don't think he would force it, do you?"
She tried to keep her voice light. The pause on the other end said she'd failed.
"I think if he was ever that stupid, he'd realise his mistake pretty quickly."
"Not what I wanted you to say."
"I can barter for one call a week. I might as well be realistic."
The doorbell rang. "Wonderful."
The second journalist arrived soon after the first. And then the third showed up—this one from a major news network.
She could just imagine the front pages: "Feminist Heir to the Spice Mages Offered Up under Bride Price Tradition!"
Her last blind date had said her reputation would come back to haunt her. She just hadn't thought it would go like this.
By the time she was ready to leave the house, there was a news van on her lawn.
She stood in the hall, her spice chest open in front of her, and considered a charm of invisibility. Her fingers curled around the cool clay of her spice pots. Then . . . no. If someone wanted to marry her against her will, then they should damn well see what they were getting into.
Cardamon again. It was the base of a good third of her spells. While on its own it provided heat, mixed with other spices it added power and longevity to a spell.
Next, turmeric. A whispered charm for repulsion. Its connection to the ground would help provide coverage to the spell. Ginger, for general acidity and sharp repulsion. Garlic, again for repulsion. Chilli, and some allspice, to provide a base.
She left the warmer spices—cinnamon, nutmeg—alone.
Having charmed each of the individual spices, she poured the mixture into an hourglass. She marched to the front door, squared her shoulders, and stepped out.
There was a brief flash of photography, and then she turned the timer.
To Kyria, the charm-caster, the shield gave off a warm protective glow. To the photographers it would be like glaring into the sun.
She hoped their cameras broke. She hoped someone caught enough of it on film to put any prospective suitors off.
The charm lasted long enough for her to escape the prying eyes of the media and hurry down to Camden High Street.
She then caught the train towards Vauxhall—area of gay saunas, civil servants trying to live near Westminster, and MI5.
From there, she walked along the river. It was a cold day, and the grey of the Thames was accented by the grey of the sky and the grey of Southbank, with its postmodern concrete buildings hoarding the best of modern art.
Only the Houses of Parliament stuck out in all their glory across the river, and they were still dulled by her current mood.
The family hall was tucked behind the children's hospital. The road was dotted with skeletal plane trees, their leaves long since stolen by winter. Against the brick of the surrounding buildings, the hall looked odd—an Edwardian manor untouched by time.
Well. The great magical families had never been shy about protecting their own property while letting everything else burn. The blitz of World War Two had made much less of a dent in their holdings than in those of the general public. They had lost just as many buildings in the resulting public anger before they had joined the war effort, but that was the foresight of the great families—keeping themselves separate until reality forced them to participate in society.
Not that they'd learned yet—her bride price was not something anyone would be able to bid for. No, only those with magic in their blood need apply.
Kyria slipped in through the old servants' door. Her footsteps echoed as she made her way down the corridor.
Her father would be in the ancestors' hall. When built, it had been furnished with a throne and portraits of old men of power. Anything to make visitors feel small.
Now, the throne was gone, and the hall was divided into two meeting rooms, connected to each other by a single door. The walls were a product of the old messy feuds that came with the interbreeding between magical families. Now they just cut down on the heating bills.
Kyria made her way to the first meeting room. The portraits stared down at four chairs, each occupied by a man. One chair stood empty.
So these were her supposed suitors. Quick off the mark. That made them very rich or very poor. Either eager to cement their legacy, or desperate to start one.
Damn them all and all their legacies to hell.
She opened the door with some violence.
Their gaze met hers, they darted away.
Good. They could . . .
The door opposite slammed open. A man stormed through, wearing what was probably his best suit. He spotted her.
"I hope you die lonely."
He swept past her, and down the corridor to the large double doors which separated the ancestors' hall from the rest of the manor. Kyria's jaw clicked shut before she turned to stare at the suitors.
How much had her father asked for her bride price?
A second passed, and then the man furthest from her stood up. He adjusted his tie, his cufflinks—all of them were dressed as if they were going to either court or a funeral—and walked through to the next room.
Raised voices followed.
The suitor left, this time with less fury.
The third suitor stood up and strode forwards, as if readying himself for war.
He lasted longer but he still left.
The last suitor glanced at her, opened his mouth, and then snapped it shut. She followed him as he walked toward the room that held her father.
He paused. She waited for him to protest her presence.
Instead, he knocked, and walked in. He drew the door shut behind him, but left the smallest of gaps.
Her father spoke in calm orders, as always: "Sit. Please, take some tea."
Kyria pulled her jacket tight around her, and settled against the wall to listen.
Her father had his story voice on—the one he'd used when teaching them magic, the one he used when talking about their mother.
She wanted to cry and throw something at him at the same time.
"You are all children."
"I am offering you my daughter." A pause. "Do you not understand what a gift she would be to you? And yet you all balk at the price of such a gift. All of you—not one of you has reacted as a proper man."
He was pissed off. Good. If she was going to suffer through this, then she hoped he suffered as well.
Silence, then the suitor spoke up: "What is the bride price then?"
A pause, then: "You see this drink?"
A nod from the suitor, short and sharp. Kyria was tempted to crane her neck to see what her father was holding up. She could feel the power from the door. "This was put together with great care, with all of the power I have. My daughter's bride price is drinking it."
"And what is it?"
"A permanent charm."
The suitor's swallow was audible—it reminded Kyria to breathe again.
"And what does the charm do?"
"It makes you infertile."
"I know men. I know the magic lines, both old and new. The old ones wish her as theirs to continue their traditions, the new ones wish her to be theirs to start their own. A broodmare to be discarded when they are done. This charm means you will be infertile until she decides she wants a child, infertile if you betray her. Infertile unless you love her."
The suitor opened his mouth to say something, and for the first time since their argument in the restaurant, Kyria saw her father.
He stood and stepped around the table that held the tea, towering over the other man. The chair rocked an inch with the suitor's efforts to wriggle back.
"This way, she is safe. You will not be able to fool her, not be able to cut corners.”
“I . . .” another gulp. “I wasn't planning to . . .”
“It doesn't matter. My own wife came to me through my father's machinations, and I had to work every breathing moment of the day to earn her place in our family. I know how our marriages work. That will not be my daughter's fate.”
His hand disappeared from view, and then came back into sight, holding a colourless liquid. "That is her bride price."
A moment of silence. The suitor stood.
"I wish you and your daughter the best in your search."
He walked back out, pausing as he slipped through the door to nod at Kyria. Her father put the flask down with a sigh.
Kyria slipped in.
For a moment, she stood there, unable to find the words. The portraits on the wall stared down at her. Two of them were from her family line—they'd fought tooth and nail over the Caribbean spice trade, would be horrified that their lines were combined now.
Her father turned, and spotted her. He didn't have any difficulty finding words.
He strode towards her, wrapped his hands around hers. For a second, she was frozen, then:
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You didn't give me a chance . . . ."
No. That was not what she wanted to say.
She pulled her hands from his warmth.
"Kyria." He didn't put his hands back down, but instead kept them raised, reaching for her. "Please. You must have heard. Just allow me to . . ."
"No. It changes nothing."
"I am just trying to protect you. Your brother is gone to his war and I know these men, I know how they . . ."
Good intentions gone awry. My son has gone to die, so I will protect my daughter from herself. She couldn't breathe, could barely speak for the haze of anger rising to make her head spin.
The words were easy this time.
"And what if I chose someone outside the old families? It's not like someone without magic can fulfill a bride price. What if I chose no-one at all? What if . . ."
For a second, there was no air in the room. Her throat struggled to open, and then she was barreling on:
"What if, papa, you trusted me enough to protect my own self rather than selling me in public so you can have your peace of mind?"
"Kyria." He reached to touch her. She stepped back. Kept stepping back, until she turned to run—through the door, down the corridor, all the way down onto the street.
She took a month off teaching. Ignored the polite sympathy in the Dean's face when she asked for the time. She ignored her father's calls.
When she came home to lights on in her front room, she paused. For a second, she stood there, snow falling around her, the cold biting into her bones.
"Right." She re-tucked her scarf and strode down the path.
At the door, she fumbled with the second lock, the normal "pull and jimmy" awkward. Footsteps approached from inside, the march of boots on hardwood.
She was halfway back down the garden path when it occurred—her father didn't wear boots.
Dignity demanded she didn't throw herself at her brother. Knowing her luck, some photographer trying to make a name for himself would catch it and it would be all over the news.
"Inside, inside, inside." She marched back up the path, grabbed his elbow, and dragged him to the kitchen.
Her cat glanced up from where he was munching at his kibble. There was a bottle of open wine on the bench, a bowl of potato wedges, and what looked like a round of cheese in the oven.
She clung to him.
The hangover was a struggle.
Kyria didn't bother with cleaning up the mess they'd left. Instead, she just made a beeline for the coffee. This time, she'd use the machine—the last thing she needed was to cast the wrong spell by accident and blow her kitchen up.
"You have no idea how much I've missed coffee." Daemin sat at the kitchen bench, head in hands. Kyria poured two mugs, added sugar to her brothers, and then sat next to him. Silence reigned as they drank. Kyria's headache was receding when her brother chose to speak.
"So. What are we going to do?"
A pounding started up. They looked at each other, then at the door.
“They had lost interest.”
“Who, the journalists?”
She nodded, frowning into her coffee. His touch was light on her arm.
"I don't think it's the journalists."
Of course it wasn't.
"Did you tell him you were coming home?"
He shook his head. Right. So he was going to be angry about that too.
"Might as well get this started," she said, and strode down the hall to wrench the door open.
Her father smelled the same. Looked the same, barring some extra wrinkles to his forehead and a slight yellow tinge to his fingers. He'd been at his cigars.
"You told me you would stop smoking."
He stared at her a moment, his hand wrapped around the edge of the door
"I hear my son is home."
Right. She turned, stalked back to the kitchen, and started raiding the cupboard. This was not going to be a toast and jam day. Pancakes seemed the appropriate answer.
She could hear them mumbling at each other. Maybe they would graduate to shouting, maybe they wouldn't. Maybe Daemin would act the peacekeeper, try and negotiate the old man down from the ledge.
Or maybe they could both go fuck themselves.
The sound the bowl made as she slammed it against the table resonated throughout the house. All other sound died in its wake.
"Kyria?" Daemin called out.
"You want to know what annoys me the most? That you pretend to care." She forged on through her father's attempt at interjection. "You don't, not really. If you did, you'd ask if I wanted you to do this. You'd talk to me about it before hand. But no. That's reserved for my darling brother, who is allowed to go off to war with only a few quiet discussions between the two of you."
"Kyria." She could hear her father getting closer. Couldn't see him, because her gaze was still trained on the kitchen bench. "Tell me how to fix this. I need . . ." his voice cracked, and she forced her gaze up. "I need you safe if he is not."
There was so much she could say to that—his idea of “safety” baffled her. But then they'd just be the same arguments again.
"You're doing it for my protection."
"Yes." He edged closer, face imploring, a spark of hope in his eyes.
"Because you love me."
"Offer up both your children then."
"What, you don't think his genetic information is just as valuable? Doesn't he run just as much risk of being taken advantage of?" Her voice turned dark, acidic. "More, if you think about it—he's a gene-producing machine—no need for him to wait nine months between cycles of reproduction. Or maybe you don't think the women in the magic families are up to it. But you never know—maybe their fathers are busy whispering in their ears too. Maybe they're not human beings in their own right, looking for someone to spend a life with. Maybe they're just as bad as their brothers."
Silence. She swiveled to pull a whisk from the vase of implements that stood by the sink. When she turned back to the bowl, her father was in front of her, his eyes incredulous.
Well damn him all to . . .
"I'll do it." Her brother's voice was loud in the silence of the kitchen. Their father whirled to stare at him.
Her brother shrugged. "I'll do it."
The old man didn't stop staring. His knuckles were white, his fingers dug into his palms.
He turned and marched out of the house.
An hour later, they were on the couch, still drinking.
"What are the chances, you think, of him agreeing?" Her brother asked, frowning as he added his third empty bottle to the pyramid they were building on the coffee table.
Kyria shrugged. "Well. He'll either drop it, or he'll put you up for auction too."
"And that would make you happy?" The pyramid wobbled, and then steadied.
"Not happy." She popped the caps off two more bottles of beer, and handed one over. "But I would be . . . satisfied."
"Hmm?" He didn't drink, just nursed the bottle between his hands, the condensation dribbling down the outside of the bottle and collecting in a pool where his fingers met the glass.
"Well. It's either all about protection, in which case, he should be doing to you what he's doing to me. Or, it's about me being female, and this will make him realize it."
"So not happy, but . . . survivable?"
"Survivable." They chinked the necks of their beers together.
And she could—survive it, that was. If it was his way of saying he cared, if it was his awkward attempt to keep them both safe? That was . . . still not okay, but she could manage.
It was the only way she'd get her father back at this point.
Her mobile buzzed, juddering across the table with the force of it. Her landline started to ring a second later.
They looked at each other, and then, with great trepidation, she went to pick up the landline.
He father was never slow with his decisions.
She could hear her brother moving towards the front room and the television. Anything to distract from whatever the pronouncement was.
"Oh my . . . . Damn. He's giving a press conference."
Kyria was halfway to the phone. She spun, and marched in the direction of her brother's voice. Her father stood at a podium, the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen making it apparent how things had gone.
It was no longer "Prominent Feminist Offered under Bride Price." Instead, it was: "Siblings Enact Age-Old Tradition."
"How the hell did he manage to spin it that way?" The control hung loose between her brother's hands. "Fuck me, I'm going to get marriage offers."
"Maybe not as many as you think."
"The bride price comes with conditions. Enough that no-one took him up on mine."
"What sort of conditions are attached to this bloody thing?"
He stared at her, baffled, and she started to giggle. Then her giggle was turned into laughter.
Kyria was at the point where she wasn't dying from mirth at the bafflement in her brother's face when someone pounded at the door. They both swiveled towards the sound.
"I don't think it's Papa this time."
"Right then." He stood. After a moment's disconnect, she scrambled up after him. "I think we might as well get this over with."
He held out his hand. Kyria hesitated for a moment, then squared her shoulders, and took it.