Short Story: Permission Dinner
When writing THE HIGH PRIESTESS, I had this rather long scene to explore what it was like for Vittoria’s parents, Ander and Nerea, to send their daughter into something so daunting. It gave me a glimpse of their relationship (I often have to discover that as I go with these kinds of books) and also their relationships as a family.
In the end, I had to cut it from the final manuscript, but am so happy to share it here. It takes place after Mateo has already asked her to handfast him, but before she goes to his house.
Mateo stopped outside Vittoria’s house in the Mayfair Covens long enough to draw in a deep breath.
The day following his request that she handfast him had been arduous, if only because there was so much to do. He only wanted to be with Vittoria to answer her questions and prepare her for what lie ahead.
The extraordinary burden he’d dumped on her sat heavy in his mind. He should have approached this differently. Eased into it. Given her time.
Yet, they had no time at all.
Mateo swallowed, adjusted his cravat, and studied the doorframe. He’d have to duck to make it through. Not unusual in these parts, which made the transformative habits of La Salvatorra even more convenient. The grime from the day still clung to him, but he hadn’t washed on purpose. Only landowners bathed during the week, and he didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable.
Before he could rap on the door, it flew open. A male child stood there, peering at him from a grubby face and dark eyes.
“Tori isn’t here.”
Tori must have been Vittoria, and the boy must be Eneko, her nephew. If Eneko knew that Mateo wanted to see her, they must be expecting him. A small part of him had expected the house would be boarded up and Vittoria long gone. Mateo nodded, giving serious consideration to Eneko’s response.
“I am here to see her,” Mateo murmured. “And when will she return?”
Eneko shrugged, losing some of his angry fervor.
“May I speak with anyone else in your family?” Mateo crouched down so the Eneko didn’t have to crane his head all the way back.
“Grandpere is here.”
“May I speak with him?”
“You can tell me whatever you need.” His harsh expression transformed into something more eager. “I’m good at remembering things. Mere’s training me to be a messenger boy. I’m fast.”
“As the wind, I bet.”
“I could probably beat you.”
“I don’t doubt it for a second.”
Eneko leaned closer, his gaze darting to the side before he whispered, “I beat Tori all the time. She’s kinda slow.”
Mateo schooled his amusement. “The wooden shoes that she wears, perhaps?”
Eneko shrugged. “Or I’m just that fast. Come on. Grandpere will speak with you. He can’t do much else these days. Since his accident.”
The boy spun and headed back inside. Mateo ducked and stepped through the door, pressing a hand to the carved La Principessa in the doorway, then stopped just inside. The dismal, square space had two windows, one on each side of the low-ceilinged room. His hair brushed the underside of the ceiling as he moved.
A small fireplace with meager firewood sat in the middle of the far wall. Wood was hard to find around here—most burned peat or dried moss or driftwood scavenged from the beach. Near the small fireplace was a narrow bed of rumpled blankets, pointed toes, and a pair of assessing eyes that stared right at him. Her injured pere, no doubt.
“You are Mateo?” the lump on the bed asked.
Mateo bowed his head for a few seconds, then said, “I am.”
The wrinkled man jerked his head to the side as a silent invitation to come closer. Mateo used a spell to beckon two closed wooden crates inside after him, closed the door behind him, and gazed around further.
Vittoria truly wasn’t here.
“She ran an errand of mercy,” her pere said, as if reading his mind. “As she always does. A neighbor called for help. Vittoria promised to return as soon as she could. You may call me Ander.”
Mateo lowered the crate to the floor with magic. It settled with a gentle sigh. “A pleasure to meet you, Ander. My friend, Antoni, is an apothecary. He sent some medicines that may be of assistance to you. With your permission, I have asked him to stop by and do an assessment later.”
Anders gaze narrowed. When he said nothing, Mateo gestured to the crate. “I brought some toys for Eneko, some clothes, and enough food to compensate for the next week with Vittoria’s absence. As I am taking her away from you, I will replace her wage in your house.”
“Will you?” Ander murmured.
“Toys?” Eneko squeaked.
He vaulted himself across the room, two wooden toys in hand already. They were crude representations of a witch and a horse, whittled from dry wood and tied together in pieces by cheap twine that unravelled.
“If you’ll have them,” Mateo said as he pried the lid to the crate off.
While Eneko rooted through the toys and clothes Mateo brought as a sort of peace offering, Mateo endured Ander’s continued assessment. Ander didn’t seem frightened of him. While no favorite of the nobility, as High Priest’s son, Mateo garnered at least enough fear for most to generally get out of his way.
Thankfully, Ander wasn’t so willing.
“Is my daughter a pawn?” Ander asked. “That is my greatest fear here.”
“She’s told you about my request, then?”
A hint of challenge lingered in that word. Did Ander think Mateo would be upset that Vittoria had told them the truth without him? Of course she should tell her family. The world would know soon, anyway. Mateo let out a long breath. After running around all day, he longed to sit. Instead, he remained on his feet until invited to relax more.
“Good,” Mateo said. “I’m relieved she told you.”
Ander relaxed slightly.
“Not a pawn anymore than the rest of us. But no, I don’t see her that way. She’s an asset. An absolutely essential element to a plan meant to restore the balance. Some of it, at least. Eneko’s generation will right more of the wrongs than we can. For now, we have to create the path for it to happen, then get us firmly on it.”
Ander nodded. “You are correct. Sit. Grab some of that food and give it to Eneko before he bursts. We’ll eat more when the ladies return from their errands. I would apologize that we weren’t all here to receive you, but I’m not sorry to have a chance to speak with you first myself. It’s hard to take the full measure of a man with women around. Particularly, my Vittoria.”
Mateo agreed with a rueful smile.
They settled into an easy back-and-forth. Ander asking questions, Mateo answering. Ander’s love for his daughter was apparent in the sheer depth of his questions. When a chill slipped through the window, Mateo used a silent spell to start a fire. Eneko sidled up to it, elbow-deep in new toys, while Ander continued to grill him without relenting.
“Your relationship with your brother?” Ander asked.
“Strained,” Mateo said, “but conversant. We respect each other without having to interact about our different belief systems.”
“Hmm . . . and with your pere?”
“Not quite so polite,” Mateo said wryly.
Ander startled him with a bright grin. “No, I would suppose not. Any chance either of them would harm my girl?”
“Not while I draw breath, nor any chance of after.”
A haunted expression claimed Ander for half a second before he nodded, then gazed at the flames.
“Your legs.” Mateo gestured with a nod. “Any chance of recovery?”
“Not likely.” Ander shrugged and rubbed a hand down one of them. “I have no way of knowing what is truly wrong. They haven’t moved in years. I’m doubtful they will now. After the accident on the farms, there was no apothecary.”
“But you could work now with your hands?”
Ander held them up.
Mateo hummed under his breath, full of thoughts. A sound came from outside, the distant fall of feet. He knew the quick tread, and his heart gave a little lurch when the door opened and Vittoria burst inside.
“I apologize,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be so late.”
He smiled gently from where he sat, folded over on a stool so small he feared it would break.
“Mateo,” she said with a hint of a smile covered with regret. “I’m sorry. I certainly didn’t mean to—”
Mateo stood. It felt as if he took up what little space was left. “No apologies necessary. It’s been a pleasure to get to know this young man, and your pere. I can see where you get your spunk.”
Vittoria gazed warmly past him. “Indeed.”
Before she could utter another word, the door flew open again. A woman blew inside with thick black hair and a sharp expression. Thin threads sprouted from an old shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She stopped, looked to Vittoria, then back to Mateo. Her hands went to thin hips.
“You are here for our Vittoria?” she asked.
“I am here to rightly ask your permission for Vittoria, yes.”
“You are welcome, ah . . .”
“Mateo.” The coolness in her gaze warmed by the slightest degree. “You may call me Nerea. Please, forgive our tardiness. The andrea of the house held me later than usual for a late tea.”
“No apologies required.”
Nerea studied him openly, then hung her shawl on a peg on the wall.
“Allow me to get Eneko to bed,” she murmured, “while Vittoria prepares dinner.”
“No need,” Ander said with a wave of his head. “In true Eastern Network fashion, Mateo has kindly brought his own feast to the permission dinner. A beauty I’ll bet, if the smell means anything.”
“Oh.” Nerea glanced to the crate, then back to him. “Well . . . a special occasion surely calls for a late bedtime. Eneko, you may remain awake.”
Eneko let out a whoop on the other side of the room. Vittoria and Nerea began to pull food from the crate with low exclamations of surprise. Ander kept up his ready flow of questions, and Nerea prodded into the conversation every now and then.
It all felt so . . . easy.
As if he wasn’t here to whisk their daughter away to a world far more cruel, just in different ways than they were used to. Surely, this was the most casual permission dinner ever known.
He would happily live within these stone walls for the rest of his life.
When the dinner was laid out, Vittoria sat across from him. She sent him an occasional shy glance and rare, subdued smile. There was strain in her gaze. Fear, perhaps. A waltz with anxiety and terror. Any doubt of doing the announcement the next night faded. The sooner she slipped into her new life, the better.
The wild throes of the unknown could be far more desperate and terrifying than a known path.
Mateo wanted to bring the topic up. I desire your daughter to be mine for the rest of our lives, he’d say. But he didn’t. He allowed Vittoria to lead the night, and she led it right in a mundane recitation of the day. Each of them spoke with quiet ease, as if he weren’t there as a complete and utter stranger.
“And you?” Nerea asked him over a forkful of flaky chicken pie with piping gravy and sweet carrots. “How was your day, Mateo?”
“Busy.” He swallowed, pushing a piece of potato around with a two-pronged fork they’d supplied. “Most of my time was used taking care of little things, which I normally don’t love to do. But today it wasn’t so bad.”
“Why not?” Ander asked.
Mateo glanced at Vittora over the rim of a glass filled with wine he’d chosen from Benat’s cellar.
“Today, I prepared for Vittoria.”
Warmth crawled into her cheeks, but she didn’t drop her gaze. To her credit, she kept it. Then turned to her parents.
“I anticipate there will be no objections?” she asked quietly.
Nerea and Ander exchanged a long, quiet glance. Just as Mateo was about to excuse himself for a second to give them a chance to talk, Nerea shook her head.
“No, Vittoria. You are of age. I have not spoken against it. Your pere has not spoken against it. If you are determined to put yourself in this position, we shall support you.” Her gaze flittered to Mateo. “So long as you are protected.”
No physical affection exchanged between the two of them. Mere would have reached over, grabbed his hand, and squeezed. But there was warmth all the same.
Vittoria’s shoulders slumped slightly, but he couldn’t tell if it was relief or disappointment.
“Thank you, mere. Pere.”
They nodded quietly.
“When will the announcement occur?” Ander asked as he cleared his throat and reached for a wooden glass with his wine inside.
“Tomorrow evening.” Mateo turned to Vittoria then. “Benat will call for you tomorrow. He will take you to my house to prepare for the announcement. I anticipate it to be at sunset, when the majority of witches are released for the evening.”
Vittoria stared at her plate, idly shoving a few gravy-soaked peas around into a pile. Her expression remained peaked. Her eyes drawn. Perhaps he had done enough damage to her world for the time being. Tomorrow would be soon enough to see her again, even if he didn’t want to leave in the first place.
He hadn’t enjoyed the warmth of such an evening in years. No one had asked about his day since Mere died.
“It is time for me to go,” he said, setting a ragged cloth napkin on the table next to a worn wooden plate. “It was a pleasure to meet both of you, and especially Eneko. For the gift of your daughter, I cannot find words to thank you.”
In the background, Eneko had fallen asleep on the floor. He snored softly over one of his soft new toys. Nerea faced Mateo. Though her expression was hard, her voice stark, the mist in her eyes told him enough.
“You keep her safe, Mateo,” she whispered. “And you save our nephew from a fate like ours. Then you will prove yourself worthy of our Vittoria.”
Mateo nodded once.
“You have my word.”
“I will walk you out,” Vittoria said as she stood, her stool scraping lightly on the ground. Mateo nodded to her parents again, then ducked and stepped through the doorway to the outside. Darkness had fallen in the street, which had turned cool. Vittoria wrapped her arms around her waist in the breeze.
“Thank you,” she said.
“It was my pleasure.”
“Sannara wasn’t here tonight.” She frowned, gaze fixed on something in the darkness. “I’m not sure where she is. That’s Eneko’s mere. I . . . hope you can meet her one day.”
“I hope to as well.”
Vittoria swallowed hard. She hadn’t touched him yet, not since that uncertain, timid attempt after she realized she spoke to the real Mateo. The thought made him sad, but he kept his distance. There had been enough overwhelm in her world.
“Tomorrow?” he whispered.
He tucked a finger under her chin, lifting her gaze to his. “Together,” he said. “We do this together, Vittoria. Don’t forget that. You will do nothing on your own here.”
A flicker of relief showed in her gaze, then she nodded.
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