A Novel By
This is a work of fiction. It’s all made up. Your children are safe from wicked witches, as far as I know.
THE LAST OF THE WICKED
PART I Sample
Try Before You Buy, I Say
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Fiends in seeds to sow
Fain for spark to grow
Naught but lies to tell
Bethralled in wonders past
And ploys built not to last
So tolls their dying knell
Miscast from tarnished mould
In soot and shade I dwell
Through lines of rust and gold
Behold these hands foretell
The day the wicked fell
A PORTAL HAD OPENED on the wrong side of Earth. The little boy stared into it, his eyes as big and beady as boiled eggs.
“Sally!” the boy yelled into the open pantry, where only pots and pans should have been. “Sally, come here! I knew it, I told you!”
His big sister poked her head through the kitchen doorway. “Quit yelling!”
“Look!” the boy said, pointing under the counter.
The girl hesitated only a moment before stomping toward her brother. She looked in, and the swirling blend of light and color cast a rainbow of shadows upon her face.
Her eyes took on an egg-like quality as well.
“What’s that?” she asked him, breathless. “Whatcha do?”
“Nothing! I heard Ma singing like she used to, and I opened up, and there it was!”
“But what is it?”
“It’s a whatchamacallit!” said the boy. “A . . . a tele-portal, like in the stories! I told you it could happen!”
The big sister smacked the boy upside the head. “That’s stupid, that stuff’s not real. You’re such a turd-brain.”
“Ma said to stop calling me that!”
“That don’t make you no less a turd-brain.”
“It’s a tele-portal, they’re real, I’ll prove it to you!” Without one bit of hesitation, the boy leaned in and dove head-first into the color vortex.
“Ceejay, don’t you dare!”
The girl reached out for him, and grabbed his shirt, and got yanked in like she was caught in the undertow of a whirlpool. The back of the pantry didn’t stop them from falling through.
Boy and girl tumbled together onto cobblestones. A female voice greeted them before they were done rolling on the floor.
“Yes! Wait. Two?”
“Ow,” said the boy.
“Get off’a me,” protested the girl from under a mess of limbs. With some effort the kids disentangled themselves from one another. The boy was the first to stand and look around.
“Whoa. . . .”
Tall pillars lined a courtyard that opened to a lush garden. Flowers of a dozen different colors bloomed between the pillars, and about them fluttered butterflies the size of pancakes, as did floaty translucent jellyfish, and ethereal will-o’-wisps that chattered in and out of the brush. Golden seedlings drifted above, sun-kissed twinkles sparkling in contrast to the deep green of trees wrapped all around.
The woman before the children, clad in black from floppy wide hat to robe two sizes too big, lowered her arms to a far less enthusiastic pose.
“This . . . doesn’t look right. I think there was a mistake.”
Her voice trembled slightly. The children looked at one another, then behind themselves. The tele-portal was contained in a doorframe contraption, swirling round and round like it was flushing a rainbow down the toilet.
“Told you,” the boy said to his sister. She scowled and grabbed him by the ear.
“You jumped in!”
“Now look what you did! I’m gonna whoop your rear ’til it falls off your backside!”
The woman sighed dramatically. “There certainly was a mistake. Neither of you look like the youth I was trying to lure.”
The children focused their attention on her.
“She talks funny,” the boy noted.
“She a foreigner,” responded the girl, eyes narrow and nose turned up as though nothing could possibly impress her. “Sounds like one of them Brits. You a Brit, lady?”
“Wh . . . what?”
“Reckon you a Brit, alright. This one time this guy was talking real funny on the tee-vee, so I asked my Da and he told me them Brits are spineless patterguts ’cause we had to save you from Hitler, and y’all mad about tea getting thrown into the sea or somesuch so we had to kick you out of our land.”
“Uh, I don’t―”
“And I know it’s true ’cause my Da don’t tell me no lies, so don’t you try say otherwise, lady.”
The boy tugged at his sister’s shirt. “Sally,” he said in a wary hush, pointing at the woman. “Look what she got.”
In one hand she held a gnarled rod, blue light sputtering on its tip. In the other, a glass orb with silver swirling in dark depths. A lectern stood to her side, propping up a large tome that had seen better centuries.
“She’s a witch!”
His sister snorted. “Na-a-aw. . . .”
The alleged witch stared at them, blinking profusely. Her arms came down all the way. “What is that appalling drawl?”
The girl stepped up to the woman, arms folded, head tilted and brow furrowed. “You a witch, lady?”
“Don’t be bothering her!” the boy said.
The woman’s shoulders hunched in defeat. “I can hardly understand a word you’re saying.”
“She ain’t no witch,” the girl said crossly. “Just a crazy dum-lookin Brit hag who talks funny.”
“She gonna get mad!” worried the boy.
The crazy dum-lookin Brit hag was quietly whining to herself. “How did the alignments get scrambled again?”
The young girl took another step toward the robed figure, pointing an accusing finger. “I dunno whatcher trying, but better send us back before my folks find out we gone.”
The boy clung to his sister’s sleeve. “She gonna get mad!”
“Ma’s gonna get mad. Who you scared of most?”
He kept quiet. The woman cheered up. “Oh! Maybe you are immigrants, yes? You live in London, yeah?”
The kids looked at each other again.
“Did you just call us immigrants?” the girl asked, none too pleased.
“You . . . you’re not from London? Rhoda and Swanfield?”
“We ain’t from no stinkin London, you butt-ugly Brit hag! We’re from Linden, Alabama, and damn proud of it!”
The butt-ugly Brit hag looked between them, back and forth. “What?”
“You deaf on top of dum-lookin, lady?” the girl said. “Dumb creepy Brit lady hag, you some kind of foreign pervert?”
“I’m, uh . . . no, I―”
“Brits are dingheads!” the boy joined in, emboldened by his sister’s attitude.
“Yeah! Brits are dingheads! Go back home, dinghead!”
The foreign pervert shook her head, gaze turning inwards. “This is terrible. I’ll miss the quota again. Frau is going to kill me.”
“Go back home! Go back home!”
The human youths kept chanting until it progressed into clenched-fist screaming, but Meredith had made her decision.
“Can’t believe it,” she muttered, “not a lick of spark in them. Worthless.” She left rod and orb by the tome on the lectern and rummaged in her big side-pocket for a bit. Her brow furrowed in frustration.
“Ah,” she said at last. The munitions magazine was the size of a large box of matches, easy to misplace. She pulled back her robe at the hip, unholstered her semiautomatic hand-crossbow and loaded the cartridge into the weapon.
“Be still now,” she told the accidents. “This is all a dream.”
“What’s―” the disappointing dud started, but never got to finish her question.
Meredith aimed and pulled the trigger once—thwap-whirr-kachunk—then once more—thwap-whirr-kachunk!
The darts plucked under their respective collarbones. A burst of words filled the air around them, the short lag between each string rendering both streams of sound unintelligible. The spell happened quickly after the stored incantations were done triggering.
A human girl, posed in recoil, shock dawning on her features. A human boy, fists still balled with intent, face twisted in toothy mockery. Both abruptly stuck in stasis.
The crestfallen witch unloaded the weapon, returned it to its holster and stowed the remainder of the Paralysis cartridge in its proper pocket. Reluctantly she neared the accidents, and with each step her spirits sank a bit closer to the soles of her slippers.
Their bare heels scraped like metal on stone as Meredith dragged the bodies to the frame full of swirling colors. “Ghh,” the female youth somehow said, hardly a whisper above the breeze. The budget Paralysis cartridge certainly wasn’t entrapment orb quality. At least it would wear off sooner rather than later.
Unpluck the darts. Push, grunt, shove.
Meredith watched as the accidents sank into the funnel. Another failure. She sighed, bent over the side of the device and flipped a switch. The blasted thing winked out with a muted whine.
She stared through the now-empty frame. It was a test of will not to kick it flat.
With a long-suffering grimace she took off her once-upon-a-time pointy hat, flapped it a bit, placed it back on her head. Made a few adjustments until it sat just right.
After one last look of disappointment, Meredith began her walk of shame into the cellar.
AS SHE MADE HER WAY to the storage cabinet, Meredith Brena-Galvan-Neumann wondered why the Universe conspired against her.
A yearly quota about to be missed again, and not even a dud to turn in. She could already see it: another trip to the Tower to beg Frau for a waiver, another debt added to the tally. It would be the fifth year in a row. She’d never gone so long without a single spark retrieval.
Under the harsh light of a bare lightcoil she unbuckled her holster and hung it on its proper place. One by one she emptied her pockets of sensitive items, each one acquired in a number of questionable ways, each one returning to its designated home. Dart cartridges, middle shelf, alphabetical order. Smoke pellets, tiny drawer, right side. Firetape, above the ammunition, second peg. Odor neutralizer, why was she even carrying it? She set it on the bottom shelf, cradled into the old lightbend girdle. Those two had spent a good while together, they got on well.
She emptied all her pockets, but the oversize robe stayed on. It didn’t go in the cellar, it didn’t fit in. The robe belonged in her room’s closet.
Meredith shook the imaginary dust off her hands and headed for the ramp back outside, past the freestanding shelves, the cauldron and the modest woodworking station. On the way there she continued to curse under her breath, cursed her disease and her incompetence and every indignity she suffered because of them—and most of all, she cursed the absurd relief she felt at not having snared a proper target. The litany of curses had become a bit of a ritual after every failure.
She turned off the light, swung the heavy doors closed, listened for the click, scrambled the code, slid the padlock in place and locked it. She took a few steps down the path around the house, then rolled her eyes, went back, took the key out of the padlock and dropped it into its designated pocket. Immediately she fished it out, put it back into the padlock, unlocked it, locked it again. Unlocked one more time, locked again. Better do it a third time, to make sure. And a fourth, just in case.
Finally she pulled out the key and put it away. She patted the pocket four times and resumed her downtrodden way back into the house.
Someone knocked at the door.
Meredith froze in place. She wasn’t expecting anyone. The Council sessions were under way, surely Frau couldn’t—
“Meri?” the Someone called. It was Frau’s voice.
Wide-eyed, Meredith rushed to grab the lectern and toss it behind the nearest bush, critters dashing out of the way, pages rustling in their flight. She strode to the portal device and shoved it behind a pillar, squeaky wheels complaining all the way to a full stop. She dashed to the kitchen door, snatched her hat off her head, hung it on its hook and re-did her ponytail to its proper primness as she kept walking. Frau knocked again.
Meredith shrugged out of her robe and tossed it over the back of a chair. The protest was immediate and could not be ignored: she clicked her tongue off her teeth, went back to the chair, grabbed the robe and all but ran to the closet in her bedroom.
Frau’s voice climbed over the open window and into the house. “I brought soup!”
Meredith’s belly surged with excitement and sank with dread at the same time, leaving it uneasily squashed in place. She poked her head out of the closet. “What kind of soup?”
“Open the door and find out!” came the sing-song reply.
“I’m almost there!”
“What are you doing?”
“Reorganising the closet!”
There was a brief pause. “I should think you’d have a better reason to make me wait with hot soup in tow.”
Meredith finished properly hanging her robe and strode toward the door, eyes scanning through the living room for potentially incriminating evidence. Everything seemed to be in order.
“As if you’d ever carry the pot with your bare hands?”
“Regardless! Open up already!”
She pursed her lips at her all-black long-sleeve-and-leotards outfit. No time to change. She reached for the key ring on its peg, rattled it some, selected the proper key and unlocked the door. Then she undid the deadbolt. Then she unclasped the security latch. Then she detached the chain.
The door swung open and a sealed pot of soup flew toward her face. It stopped to hover a fingerbreadth short.
“Truly, Meri,” the voice behind the pot said, “why lock the door ten times over when you leave the window open?”
Meredith simply shrugged at the often-heard question. “Why is Tin-can so eager today?”
“I already set it to obey you. And I’ve told you not to give them names.” Frau nudged the soup-carrying butler aside so she could give Meredith the once-over. “Did you just get out of bed?”
“No, I . . . well, yes, the sofa.” She smiled self-consciously. “Nap.”
“Nap,” Mifraulde repeated. “You napped today, at dusk.”
“Yes. I just had to, I couldn’t―”
“And then you woke up and immediately decided to sort out your closet.”
“Hm. At least you weren’t wasting your time in that silly garden of yours. Will you stand there all evening, then?”
“No, sorry, come in, please.” Meredith stepped aside and let her brood-sister through. Mifraulde was in Head of the Coven regalia still: tiara, medallion, ring and lush burgundy shawl, all imposing reminders of her vested authority. She laid soft fingers on Meredith’s shoulder for a greeting and walked into the living room. Her intense latent power permeated the space around her in a heady aura.
Meredith tapped one of the butler’s dangling arms and started toward the kitchen. The hovering golem faithfully hummed behind her, wordpaths glowing to the appropriate configurations all along its arms and torso. “I thought you’d be in session until late,” she said as she walked, casual and conversational and not disappointed at all.
“I thought so as well.” Frau tossed her shawl on the couch. She smoothed her velvet cowl along her buttocks before sitting at the edge of the cushion, back very straight, knees glued together. Her skin, pale as fog, practically glowed under the white light of the ceiling lamps.
Meredith shouldered her way through the kitchen’s swinging door and engaged the latch so it would stay open. “But?”
“The swamp dwellers made such a ruckus over the new spark distribution that the session had to be adjourned before it came to actual blows.”
“Selma went as far as standing up and balling a fist at me. Imagine the nerve! We’ll be incurring another deficit this year. No-one wants to give up their youth allotment, and yet all those traditionalist crones won’t even consider rule changes, let alone an overhaul to the system. It’s frustrating.”
The topic was veering entirely too close to what Meredith had been attempting just a moment ago. “You should throw Selma in a cell.”
“Would that I could, but her Tarkan cult of idiots would revolt. Foul bog lurkers, the lot of them.”
Meredith tapped the golem again and pointed at the counter. “Drop the pot over there, Tin-can.”
“Stop giving them names! It’s as bad as naming the serfs.”
She rolled her eyes and watched the butler settle the load. “No it’s not,” she quietly answered—very quietly—as the latches became undone. Heat roiled above the lid once Tin-can floated out of the way.
Meredith put on a pair of mitts, grabbed the pot by the handles and moved it over to the stove, soup sloshing noisily inside. She carefully pried the clasps on the lid and set it inside the sink.
Nose hovering over the pot, Meredith caught a delectable whiff of pure guilt.
“You brought piggy soup? Is, uh– is this an occasion?”
She didn’t hear Frau’s sigh, but she knew it was there. “Only for your deprived palate, Meri.”
Meredith opened the cupboard and inspected the small collection of bowls. She had to reach to the back for the one that wasn’t chipped or cracked in one way or another. “Yeah, well,” she muttered, “some of us live on a budget.”
“Did you say something?”
“I said I didn’t make the fudge yet! I was planning to put together some fudge for dessert as soon as I was done with the closet.”
“That’s for the better, then. Your fudge is terrible, I don’t know why you persist.”
“Desmond likes it,” she said as she poured spoonfuls off the ladle. Her brow was pinched as she watched it plop down. This soup was so hearty with piggies. Outright decadent. It was impossible to avoid them.
“You must stop talking to yourself, dear.”
“I said Desmond likes it!”
“That little monster likes everything.”
Meredith replaced the lid and fastened the latches twice, just in case. Thrice. Four times. She took her only ivory spoon from its case and put it in Mifraulde’s bowl, then opened a drawer and fetched a steel spoon for herself. “Let’s go, Tin-can,” she needlessly prompted. She heard the sigh this time around.
Back in the living room, Meredith placed each bowl on either side of the snack table and moved the cloth napkins to optimal distance between bowl, table edges and diners. Mifraulde unfolded her napkin over her lap, brushed her immaculate waves of dark hair over to one side of her neck and took the daintiest of sips.
Meredith cupped her bowl to her chest and heaped her first carefully-selected mouthful. The carrots were sweet and didn’t even need to be chewed. The peas were firm enough to pop satisfyingly. There was egg and onion and a delicate blend of spices she couldn’t begin to decipher. A stew made to order from Greta’s Mess, no doubt; Frau had a direct comms channel to their kitchen.
As she ate, Meredith’s spoon would pick and prod into the stew like a raven’s beak through a carcass. When she looked up, gelid blue eyes met her self-conscious smile.
“Why are you only eating the broth?” Frau asked.
“The piggies are quality stock, not a single dudlet. You don’t like them?”
“Oh, I do. They’re delicious. Perfect.”
“I don’t see them in your spoon or in your bowl.”
“No, there’re piggies in there. See? Look.”
Frau looked. She said nothing.
“Just saving them for last, is all.”
The Head of the Coven chewed in deliberate silence for entirely too long. “Eat all your food, Meredith.”
Even while Frau’s gaze was focused on her own meal, her attention bore down on Meredith like a graduation tribunal waiting on her examination answers. Without outward hints of hesitation, she filled her spoon and closed lips around the whole lot.
“Mmm,” she made sure to say, perhaps a bit prematurely.
The piggies were de-boned, de-nailed and cooked to soggy perfection, so tender they came undone on her tongue. The flavor went beyond mere spices and meat, it reached into some primal center in her brainstem that sighed in relief and contentment and said, yes, this is good. A tiny boost to her latent power tingled down her throat as she swallowed.
It was delightful and perfect and it sated the flesh-woven craving that would scratch at the bones of every witch. And yet, none of these things stopped the nausea that bothered the pit of her stomach.
Keep it down, she goaded herself. You’re going to keep it down this time.
“So, then. Have you not set up yet?”
The words smacked Meredith upside the head. It was a challenge not to choke.
“Oh, yes, of course, I . . . I slept past dusk, I didn’t mean to. Forgot to set an alarm.” She kept her attention fastened on her spoon, determined not to make shifty eyes.
“Yes, I see.” Frau maintained a neutral expression. “Even though you knew your window would expire at dusk. And after I reminded you, only three days ago.”
Meredith nodded, ever so contrite and disappointed in herself. No need to pretend, there.
The Head of the Coven took another sip, softly swallowed, tongued her palate. “It’s curious you would take a nap at all, after going to the pains of reserving the space-fold for a two-day period. You can’t sit still come retrieval time. Suddenly it didn’t make you nervous anymore?”
Meredith licked her lips. “That’s why, really. I didn’t sleep well at all, so then I was too tired in the evening.”
Mifraulde continued bringing spoon to mouth, letting her terse acknowledgement linger for a while. The knot in Meredith’s gut kept tightening.
“That is unfortunate,” Frau finally said.
“Well, I figured I could rest today and get it done at dawn.”
“You, out of bed before light?”
“I can do it, I’ve done it before.”
“Hm.” Another calm sip. She patted her mouth with the corner of her napkin, then smoothed it back in place. “Do you think I’m gullible, Meredith? Do you think I’m stupid?”
“What? No, why would you say that?”
“If you are going to lie to me, at least think of better lies.”
“Lies? I don’t lie to you, I would never lie―”
“Are you certain you want to finish that sentence?”
Meredith went quiet. Her mouth made a few false starts. “I haven’t had time yet, is it so hard to believe?”
“So you’re saying if I went to Travel and Transportation and demanded to see the nexus registry logs for today, I wouldn’t find your entry there?”
The pause was only for outrage, not incriminating in the slightest. “No. No, of course you wouldn’t.”
“You truly are committing to it. What did you do this time? What went wrong?”
“Nothing! You always doubt me, it’s no wonder I can’t―”
“What did you do this time, Meredith?”
“I don’t know why―”
“Alright! I made a mistake, I . . . I set the alignments wrong, or something, and all I got was a flush of sewage pouring through! I just finished cleaning up the whole mess, not even a dud to show for it. Is that what you wanted to hear me say?”
“No. What I want to hear you say, for once, is that you retrieved a youth fit for harvest without making another mistake.” The Councilor’s composure didn’t fray one bit, every word delivered in an off-hand manner. Nonchalant sheets of sandpaper fluttering across the room to scrub Meredith’s ears. “That would be too much to ask for, wouldn’t it? It truly would be too difficult, for you to get something done right first-try, for once. Though at least I didn’t have to rescue you this time, so there is something to celebrate, correct?”
A ball of shame and anxiety ballooned in Meredith’s belly and made good pals with the nausea. She set her bowl down on the snack table. Whatever was left of her appetite was gone.
Mifraulde continued enjoying her soup with studied care. Miserable thoughts piled up with every spoonful.
“You’re right,” Meredith said in a quiet voice. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Frau.”
“I won’t listen to your self-pity again. Your talent shortcomings can’t justify this. More and more I suspect it’s a matter of will.”
Panic surged among the misery and threatened to push up Meredith’s throat. “What do you mean? Nothing would please me more than to get all my spells right.”
“Then why do you get them wrong? You can speak well enough, and anyone with even a trickle of talent can get a space-fold going. You can’t tell me something’s malfunctioning every single time, it’s ridiculous. What’s left, if not self-sabotage? Do you enjoy the attention, is that it? Maybe that’s the only way you can feel accomplished, making me look like a soft-hearted clod at every chance you get, because otherwise you’d be another nobody. A personal disgrace of mine I could at least keep secret without fuss. What am I to think?”
Her tone was reasonable, as if she was trying to have an honest discussion. As if the words wouldn’t climb into her brood-sister’s ribcage and clog her chest in a suffocating choke. Meredith shrunk in her seat, all of a sudden keenly aware of the fabric in contact with her skin, of the scarcity and shoddiness of her appearance next to the Head of the Coven.
Her eyes were cast down and adrift in the middle distance, because she’d long given up on holding Mifraulde’s high-browed stare. “I wish nothing more than to get all my spells right,” she repeated. Her freckled cheeks burned in humiliation.
Mifraulde shifted in her seat and regarded her in silence. After a few moments she blew out a breath and her features softened, though they remained more severe than compassionate.
“Alright,” she said, “I went too far, that was unwarranted. Forgive me. It’s been a taxing day, and learning about another of your failed attempts does nothing to improve it.”
Meredith glanced across the couch at the Councilor, embarrassment and hurt mixing in a bitter cocktail inside her head. Despite the shift in tone, Frau hadn’t exactly retracted her spiteful remarks.
She considered her next words carefully. After all, Mifraulde Brena-Galvan-Neumann was the only reason why she still drew breath.
“You only say the truth as you see it,” she said. “There’s nothing to forgive.”
Neither one spoke for a while. Meredith took up her bowl again and made an effort to empty it. For the remainder of supper the silence was broken only by the occasional clatter of spoons, the Council signet clacking against Frau’s bowl, the call of the duskaws, the cluck of ravens, the faint tik-tok of the clock on the wall. The tension eased slowly as they finished their dishes, yet still it stubbornly clung to the air between them.
Mifraulde set her empty bowl on the snack table and carefully wiped her mouth with the napkin. She folded it up and laid it upon the table at the end of a long sigh. “Dusk and dawn. Greenwich, yes? Or is it the Americas?”
“I see. Even easier. You have two more nexūs before your window is over. I shall help you tomorrow at dawn.”
“Help? But, the law―”
“I know the blighted law. I will simply supervise you and correct mistakes on a mock attempt, without infusion. Then you will retrieve the youth we need, all on your own merit. Are we in agreement?”
The inclination of the Councilor’s head and the arch of her eyebrows allowed for no other answer than “Yes. Thank you, Frau.”
“Good.” The High Seat medallion swayed on its delicate chain and bounced off Frau’s bust as she stood. She gathered the Councilor shawl and draped it around her well-toned frame. The Head of the Coven tiara, intricately woven into her hair, glinted under the white lamplight. “Keep the rest of the soup. Cool it properly for storage, I don’t want you to be sick.”
Meredith’s chin dipped. Her pressed lips quivered with the words she wanted to say: I don’t want your soup, I can feed myself, I can at least manage that.
She nodded instead. “Don’t worry.”
“I wish I didn’t have to. Rest well and early. I’ll see myself out.”
Frau’s slippers rustled through rug and wood. Meredith tracked them—it was as high as her eyes would venture at the moment. Her brood-sister stepped closer, within arm’s reach. Maybe to offer a gesture of encouragement? She’d pat Meredith on the shoulder, reassure her everything was fine and even apologize for—
“Follow,” Mifraulde ordered her golem, one hand cradled in its subtle indentations so it would switch back to her. She walked away and paused at the door. “I will return a span before dawn.”
Meredith nodded again. The door opened, then swung closed, softly.
One breath, half an exhale, and she bolted for the bathroom. She barely held it down long enough before reaching the toilet.
There was nothing witchlike about what followed.
Desmond trotted in at some point between wretched heaves, as if he’d been avoiding Mifraulde on purpose. He probably had. He waited until she was done, then rubbed his upturned nose against her calf and made a few consoling noises while she fought to catch her breath. Meredith’s hand absently scratched at the thick of his ears, below the fluff and above the bristles.
“I’m alright,” she whimpered despite all evidence to the contrary. She reached for some tissue and tried her best to dry her face. “Don’t worry, I’m alright.”
The barrel-bellied thog licked her knee with self-assured eloquence. Meredith gave a big sigh and wiped off the slobber he’d left. “Do you ever feel like you don’t belong where you are, Desmond?”
He snorted and nudged her leg.
“I know, you belong wherever you are.”
He dragged his whole flank along her thigh and flopped on the tiles. He snorted.
“I’m moping again, aren’t I.”
“Fine, alright, I’m getting up.”
Fighting light-headedness, Meredith rinsed her mouth at the sink until her tongue stopped trying to escape; she was very conscious to avoid her reflection through the process. She stumbled to the front door and locked it four different ways, then gathered the napkins and bowls and spoons and brought them to the sink. Desmond trailed behind her, feet clacking on the hardwood at a relaxed trot. His damp snout nudged relentlessly while she washed the utensils, but Meredith had tuned it out for so many years that she hardly even noticed anymore.
Rinse, soap, scrub, rinse, repeat.
She left them to dry and turned to that galling pot of soup. It could feed her for a whole moon cycle, if she could manage to keep it in her stomach. It would feed her for several, if she fished out and pawned the piggies in there, even as soggy and diluted as they were. The way things were going, she could hardly believe a dish this wasteful was still legal. Perhaps it wasn’t.
Nudge nudge nudge.
“I know you’re hungry, you don’t have to be such a bother.”
“Hm. How would you like a special treat?”
Meredith hauled the heavy pot of soup outside and dumped it in Desmond’s trough.
ONLY HALF-AWAKE, MEREDITH couldn’t fathom how the witches of yore had managed for centuries to create and maintain the portals manually. Some of her more conservative contemporaries scoffed at the use of space-folds and still relied on the old methods, the thought of which was enough to make her shudder.
She carefully rotated knobs until the doorway to a walk-in closet was centered between the swirly edges of the image. How had the meridian alignment shifted so radically the last time? Not one of the radial coordinates was even remotely similar between England and Central America—or was it North America? Earth’s borders were so confusing. The mistake had surely been in her infused diction, and indeed the attempt they’d rehearsed a moment ago had revealed some minor flaws in her pronunciation, but they shouldn’t have caused such a wild deviation.
Regardless, this looked the way it should. The youth was a modest mound under the covers, this time. The day previous she’d been weeping on that bed, hugging herself, constantly wiping at her eyes while staring into the middle distance. It would have been such an easy lure.
The room had been an utter mess then, but now it was tidy and proper, with its shelves full of colorful books, toys and figurines. The human was on the older side of the curve, but no doubt still viable. Everything should go smoothly, as far as Meredith could tell. She shot another bleary-eyed look at Mifraulde.
“Stop darting glances at me,” Frau said from behind her shoulder. “Do as if I were not here.”
“But you are here, watching me. I keep thinking you disapprove of every little thing.”
“I do disapprove, but there’s nothing I can do short of replacing you with someone else. So continue doing as you will.”
Meredith clamped her jaw shut so her first choice of words wouldn’t make it out.
“Well,” she said instead, “it’s not helping much. It makes me nervous.”
“Perhaps it will also make you work faster? Dawn will be upon us soon. Stop doubting yourself. You will succeed this time, Meredith.”
It was more demand than encouragement.
“Sorry. I mean, yes. I mean, I will, thank you.”
The image was slightly off-center. Meredith opened the polar angle a hairbreadth while decreasing radial distance the teensiest amount. She tilted the image up just enough to compensate.
“The alignment is correct,” Frau said. “I cannot interfere from this point forwards. Do not make a mistake, now.” She stepped away and continued observing by the kitchen door.
“How could I, with such reassurance?” Meredith muttered. The guilt was already throwing a fit, as nagging and unwelcome as usual. Under Mifraulde’s judgmental eye there would be no way to spare the youth its fate, if it turned out to be a dud despite all the promising signs.
She closed down the metal flap to lock the controls and took her position at the center of the courtyard. The lectern stood to her left, holding her disheveled copy of Folding Space and Other Non-Standard Transportation. She leafed through Chapter Four: A Comprehensive List of Proven Transportation Spells until she found the appropriate section: Establishment of a Portal to Earth – Models #27A and Newer.
She could sense Frau’s displeasure with the turn of every page, but Meredith would rather safely read it than risk reciting from memory. As she quietly reviewed the spell she warmed up her core and throat muscles, taking them through the Proctor Pre-Infusion Cycle for Safe Incantation. Infusion came as natural as breathing to her brood-sister, but Meredith needed every bit of her concentration to pull it off reliably.
After a good while of contractions, spasms and mostly suppressed burps, she felt as ready as she could ever be. She unsheathed the command rod from its belt loop and drew the entrapment orb from its pouch. Her eyes darted to the skyveil, then to the small clock on the outside wall. Dawn would break in a quarter-span.
Meredith pointed the rod at the center of the image. She reached for what little talent she harbored, consciously rousing every bit from toes to fingertips. Halfway through the exhale of a deep breath, she engaged her diaphragm at just the right tautness and coaxed her vocal cords into doing cartwheels.
Frau coughed, not even looking in her direction.
Meredith interrupted herself, blinked, looked around. Everything was well and ready, what bug had crawled—
Heat rose to her cheeks as she shuffled over to the space-fold, reached under and flipped a switch. Hundreds of tiny sigils slowly brightened all over the frame, lines upon lines of miniaturized symbols packed into the paths dictated by automation protocols. Meredith kept her eyes on the cobblestones as she walked back into position.
She faced the device. She squared her shoulders, pointed the rod forward and took another deep breath. On the exhale, Meredith hooked a tether to the foundations of the Universe.
“Şǣ ŕīđ’ün vēr’vă’ẏun vă’in ŏṅēş’ŷăn úm.”
She read it slowly, clearly, voice reverberating with the shallow depths of her infusion. The effort wheedled forth her attunement to open the link between her and the rod, which would in turn link the rod and the portal device. Although it hadn’t been flawless, it proved good enough to be functional: the pointy tip of the rod glowed blue; most of the sigils on the frame faded while the appropriate paths flared to a golden hue; the view of the walk-in closet became a swirling vortex of lights.
Meredith suppressed a sigh of relief. The link choked and died, leaving the portal to idle on its own energy well. Had Frau groaned?
Nah, she hadn’t, everything was fine.
She held up the fist-sized orb and depressed the indentations where thumb and little finger were cradled. A tinny hum emerged from the orb, a mixture of frequencies with a dash of infusion that would worm into the psyche of human youths and irresistibly lure them. Most of the time. Her index finger caressed the knob on the front of the sphere, ready to trigger the entrapment as soon as she got a positive ID on the target.
With practiced care she smothered the voice moaning in the back of her head, that bothersome whine that would always implore her not to try. In that moment, she was glad for Mifraulde’s presence. There would be no inner struggle this time, no queasy reluctance unbecoming of proper witches. A youth would come through, and Meredith would take care of it.
She continued to stare at the spinning vortex, dreading what might come out of it, looking forward to settling this ghastly chore for another year. The moving image was hypnotic, a rainbow caught in a whirlpool, eddies of color and wispy swirls fluttering whimsically about the edges. Meredith had to blink and shake her head a few times to stay alert.
Frau’s voice poured onto the humming silence. “This waiting is why proper witches get an Earth travel license and get it done in hardly a cent. Will you stop fidgeting already?”
Meredith glanced her way and made an effort to stop shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “You forbade me from ever applying again.”
“And why did I do that, Meri? Do you want to go into detail as to why? Don’t let me stop you, now.”
Meredith pressed her lips together and kept silent. She didn’t need to see it to know Mifraulde had just rolled her eyes. “Give it time, some resist longer than others.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to talk to me?”
“I’m not supposed to aid your retrieval or interfere with the spell. I have done neither.”
Meredith fidgeted some more before stopping herself. “Right.”
Dawn would break soon. Dawn happened, the Sun taking a centispan to fade into being above their heads. Dawn came and went.
The humming silence dragged on. The brood-sisters exchanged a look.
“The nexus is closing soon,” Frau said.
“I did everything right this time, I swear.”
“I did! I swear I did.”
Frau pointed at the pillar behind Meredith, the one with the rough dent and web of cracks. “You claimed the same after that happened.”
“And I still do! That hydrant flew out of nowhere, I still don’t know how―”
Meredith was rudely interrupted by voices yelling. The yelling voices came from people bursting through the portal and stumbling directly in front of her.
Two males, one female, all grown. She had time to take a step back.
One of the two burly mustached man-things regained his footing ahead of the others. His eyes cast about the area wildly. He clutched to his chest a long tube with a handle and a trigger, while the other big male brandished a smaller powder-gun with revolving ammunition chambers.
“What’s this place!” the face-haired human yelled at her. “What’d you do to my kids? You some kind of terrorist?”
“You hurt my babies!” the large female screamed. She held a humongous knife in her outstretched hand, pointed directly at Meredith.
She took another step back while her stomach made a backflip. In a panic she aimed the orb toward the nearest male and pressed the switch to trigger the entrapment. Immediately the trinket lit up in myriad threads of silver, and with a burst of sound like a hundred words crammed in an instant, the oblong sphere flew to the man’s chest. It hit with an audible thump.
“Hurk,” the man said. There was a crack and a jet of rank steam, and the chromeflow burst from within the orb to wrap in full around the target. The other two deranged creatures stared aghast as the face-haired man-beast became one perfectly rigid lump of gray. It teetered on the balance. It collapsed on the cobblestones with a solid thunk and a short scrape.
“Rick!” the other male cried.
“Sweet Jesus in Heaven,” breathed the female. The remaining man-person quickly stepped up and pointed the revolving-chamber powder-gun at Meredith’s nose.
“Swear to God almighty, you gonna pay!”
After one look at the circle of darkness within the barrel, Meredith whimpered and shut her eyes.
Mifraulde’s voice descended upon the scene, a gale of infused syllables that reverberated through Meredith’s skull. She didn’t understand all of it, but she recognized enough clauses to know she better duck and shield her face.
She heard the horrid crackle of flowers and bushes and fluttering critters withering into lifeless husks as a result of the spell’s sourcing. The hair along her neck stood on end, the air became heavy with friction. Even through her closed and shielded eyes she saw the flash of lightning that struck the intruders.
The thundering whip-crack and electrified sizzle seemed to carry on forever. Two distinct thumps hit the floor, followed by the clatter of metal parts against the cobbles. The stench of charred flesh immediately inundated her nostrils.
Meredith squinted at her feet. As the world came back into focus, she caught sight of the grisly remains touching her slippers. White skull bone peeked through a melted eye socket. Her breath quivered and hitched in her throat—she stepped back, turned around and retched for a second time in as many days.
Mifraulde was next to her some time later. Meredith knelt on the floor, cowl pulled back, one hand on her breastbone. Her chest heaved with every anxious breath she took, the gulps of air hurt her ragged throat on every inhale. She lifted her eyes from the remains of her meager breakfast, and the sight of her black-clad brood-sister brought genuine dread to her gut.
“A witch does not whimper,” the Councilor said in a terrible rasp. “A witch does not cower.”
“I’m sorry. . . .”
“Don’t be sorry. Be better.”
“I try, I’m sorry. . . .”
“How in Tarkai’s name did you manage to get that through the portal? What were they going on about?”
“I don’t know, Frau! The Universe hates me!”
Mifraulde’s eyes narrowed. “The Universe doesn’t hate you any more than it could hate a star or a mote of dust. Stop making excuses for your mistakes.”
“But I did every―”
“Your infusion was poor and your diction imprecise. How else could you have attracted grown humans? Let me see that orb.”
Mifraulde cracked the now-opaque spheroid off the human’s chest and examined the set of dials behind its tiny concealed panel. After a suspicious frown, her features drew into outright scorn.
“This is the wrong frequency,” she spat. “If you are going to bend the rules with trinkets, the least you can do is use them properly. How could you be this obtuse?”
Meredith’s eyes found a cobblestone to cling to and stayed fixed on it. “I don’t know. . . .”
“Of course you don’t know.” Mifraulde looked at the scene around her. “I would tell you to clean this up as punishment, but you are too weak to even do that, aren’t you? You can’t look at these human wretches without shaking. What little you did to defend yourself happened by accident. Don’t you even try deny it.”
Meredith wanted to stand, tell her sister to go burn in a pyre, maybe throw a punch at her jaw. Yet the smell, the hissing sounds, the exposed flesh, and how very close she’d come to getting killed—it all kept her clenched on the floor, helpless.
She feebly nodded agreement.
“I’m tired of taking care of you,” Mifraulde continued. “I keep telling myself that you need me, that I’m doing right by you, but am I really? Maybe I coddle you. Maybe I enable you to be this way. I wonder if I’ve been mistaken all along, and you cannot be helped.”
Meredith’s chest seized at the words. She spoke tremulously, bile still burning on her tongue.
“I can be helped, I– I’m not hopeless, please. . . .” With a shaking hand she grasped the hem of Mifraulde’s robes. “Please, Frau. I owe you everything, without you they’ll tie me to a pyre, they’ll wipe and banish me or worse.” She swallowed, and she could very much feel a bitter mouthful of pride going down her throat. “Please forgive me.”
The Head of the Coven stared for long moments, and in frightful glances Meredith followed the calculations running behind those gelid blue eyes. In horror she understood Frau was actually considering it, to withdraw her protection, to let the Coven do with her sister as they did with every broodling that turned out to be a dud.
At last Mifraulde exhaled a sharp sniff, pulling away so Meredith would let go of her clothes. “Pick yourself up and go get clean. I’ll take care of this.”
Meredith felt an immense rush of relief and hated herself for it. She gathered her robes and clambered to her feet, eyes well away from all the gruesome disfigurement.
Carefully holding her tears in check, Meredith fled into the house.
FRAU WAS GONE. She had left without saying goodbye.
Meredith had forced herself to pay attention as someone else cleaned up after her. From the kitchen table she listened to Mifraulde engage the space-fold to somewhere else, and the spell to levitate the corpses and toss them through. Frau’s power had permeated the courtyard and seeped into the house. Her diction was impeccable, her infusion flawless, she’d honed her technique to perfection and had a voice naturally pitched to shape reality. Huddled in her chair, Meredith had sweltered in a familiar blend of envy and admiration.
Frau had come inside and walked past without a glance, the otherworldly aura of unleashed magic trailing behind her like a transcendental perfume. She hadn’t been gentle with the door locks, but at least she hadn’t simply blown the door off its hinges.
Only after she was gone did Meredith let frustration take over. Even then she cried in silence, not making a scene, not making a mess. She was used to this feeling. It was simply stronger than usual this time.
Had she truly made so many mistakes? Even if the orb’s frequency was wrong, the portal had also malfunctioned somehow. Everyone saw her as a bumbling fool where magic was concerned, and sure, she’d failed enough to earn it—but sometimes she couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. It felt like Frau had laid the blame on her mostly out of habit. How was she supposed to be better, if she didn’t know what to improve?
Maybe it would be for the best if they got rid of her. They’d burn her, or throw her into a pit, or slice her tongue and use her for brute labor along the duds and the stunts. At that moment it all felt like a small price to pay, if it meant freedom from the clutches of frustration.
Mired in self-pity, she left her chair to wrap up the cleaning outside. She opened the back door to find Desmond snuffing at the regurgitated breakfast.
“Don’t eat that!” She hurried toward the thog. “Shoo, Desmond! Shoo!”
Desmond raised his snout from his prospective meal, snorted and trotted away through the newly withered bushes. Meredith eyed the remains of her lovingly nurtured flowers with resentment. Shriveled butterfly wings and flitglow husks littered the floor around them. It had taken forever to get them to nest in there.
“She didn’t have to kill you guys,” she told the dead plants. Mifraulde had made the spell needlessly complicated by using the plants as a part of the source. They couldn’t even fuel it all on their own. She’d done this on purpose.
Meredith looked at the floor and wished she hadn’t. There were clumpy patches of red on the cobbles, very obviously raspberry jam and not any kind of melted body part whatsoever. She went over to the corner and picked up bucket and mop. The water was still soapy from yesterday’s pass.
She set out to clean all the spattered jam and scrambled eggs, and runny eggs, and spicy minced taters. On her knees she scrubbed at the pieces of . . . of ground beef, yes, charred ground beef stuck to the cobblestones for some reason. She was intently not looking at it when she spotted a silvery gleam under the space-fold.
With a mix of curiosity and dread she crawled the half-step to the device and pushed it out of the way. Squeaky wheels rattled on the uneven ground to reveal the muzzle of a revolver.
She quickly pulled on the frame to cover it back up and scrambled away to a good safe distance. She spent a moment sitting and staring, legs bent to her chest, before feeling properly ridiculous in her reaction.
“Stop being an idiot,” Meredith chided herself. Again she pushed the device aside and squatted by the artifact. Fretting at her lip, she inspected the weapon as if it was the carcass of an unknown pest.
She didn’t want it. Lethal Earth artifacts were strictly controlled. She’d have to make a trip to Brena’s repository, fill out all the forms . . . and then would come the questions, of course. Humiliating to answer, at best. At worst, they’d lead to a search.
Under no circumstances should a Judicar search through her spare room or cellar. Her collection had stretched plausible deniability several shelves too far.
Best to take the powder-gun to Mifraulde. She’d scowl and harrumph, but Frau would deal with it quietly.
And give a lecture while at it. And berate her, and make her feel like a worthless clump of dirt again. “Rather chew on a mouthful of worms than go to her,” she muttered bitterly.
She eyed the space-fold frame. She could risk opening a portal to somewhere on Earth and throw the thing through—
Eugh, the idea alone made her recoil. The damn thing would open into a volcano and the magma would char half of Brena, she just knew it. The portal wouldn’t go unnoticed by the Department of Travel and Transportation, anyway.
Blasted vermin in a teacup, just put it in a pocket. No-one would notice, no-one would know. Maybe one day it would come in handy. Maybe, one day, it could even save her life.
She was saving her own life by taking the weapon. Yes. Hard to argue against her very survival.
Meredith caved, as she often would, and went to stow the revolver in her belt pouch, only to realize her hands had already done it and were pulling the strings closed.
It wasn’t the first time they seemed to have a will of their own.
“Just to keep it out of sight for now,” Meredith said out loud. She wiped her palms on her robe and glanced at the clock. It would bother her all day if she went to work without tidying up everything.
The weight of the gun was a constant presence at her waist as she bustled up and down the courtyard.
SITTING AT ONE OF SEVERAL workbenches in Assembly Chamber Three, Meredith peered into her current work assignment through the augment lenses. Her right hand adjusted the brace for the casing, tightening the grip. Her left hand picked the next cog from the container and lined it up by the unfinished device.
“I got mine back on Wane,” Val continued yammering from the next station over, craggly voice raised above the din of laboring machinery. “First attempt, barely enough spark to qualify, but I’m not one to keep hunting. They’ll take anything at this point. I truly don’t envy you, winter’s starting in Britain now, most grown ones are indoors with their youths. Harder to lure them out.”
Meredith said nothing while lowering the tiny cog onto a tiny plate inside the tiny cube. She delicately eased the pressure on the pliers so the cog would fall in place at the right time. She pressed down on it, gently. It made contact with a soft click.
As usual, Val’s lips flapped relentlessly while she did her own tinkering. It was a constant in Meredith’s workdays, as consistent as the drone of the machines in the distribution halls. At least today the other stations were quiet: Anna, Gretchen and Brienne were at the infusion labs for the rest of the week.
They never failed to rub it in. Meredith was not allowed anywhere near a soundstill.
“They should switch you with someone else so you could do it in the warm season,” Val carried on. “All the grown ones are away while the youths do whatever they want. Much easier to get a good target hassle-free.”
Meredith’s eyebrow perked up. “Switch? Since when is it possible to switch dates?”
“Well, you’re not supposed to, not officially, but trading’s been going on since forever and the Harvest Department looks the other way. I’ve done it myself a few times, it’s easy chud, but I never told you that.”
“Oh. That’s, um . . . I would rather not do anything illegal. It’s not worth the trouble.”
Val chuffled out a breath. “Ever the milksop, you are. There wouldn’t be any trouble, but suit yourself. How’s this for an idea? Ask that brood-sister of yours to rig the lottery in your favour. Let her cheat for you, and that way she won’t have to yell at you later. What do you think?”
Meredith looked up from the half-assembled scent mask and give Val a rotten look. Her coworker’s knobby pepper of a nose wrinkled with amusement. “I’m not trying to mock you, I’m only saying you have connections. Might as well use them, since you can’t afford a harvest bribe.”
“I already use them too much for comfort. And there’s no such thing as harvest bribes, everyone follows the law and pulls their weight. Mifraulde said so.”
“Oh, yes, of course, indeed. I’ll have to check my sources, if Mifraulde said so. Why would she ever lie about something like that? It must be true, certainly.”
“Alright, I caught your meaning, stop.”
Devalka let out a low cackle. “You truly are precious, if you think those well-to-do Council crones are in the habit of turning in. That’s pedestrian work and shortage be damned, mark me.”
“Well, Frau does. Always.”
“Yes, our dear Mifraulde does, I don’t doubt that.” She put down her fine-point iron to wag a finger in Meredith’s direction. “You simply don’t know how to take advantage, that’s your problem. I’d be enjoying luxury in the Head of the Coven’s shadow if I were you. Leaning upon the backs of my dozen stunts, chewing on flap jerky and sipping on eyeball cocktails.” She chuckled at her own mental image. “But no, you toil away for a handful of clips at the manufactory, working on low-level assignments as if your brood-sister isn’t the most powerful witch in existence.”
Only after the next cog was in place did Meredith respond. “You’ve a strange concept of how Mifraulde spends her time on a given day.”
“Ah, and how does dearest Mifraulde spend her time on a given day?”
Meredith had the good sense to ignore the bait for gossip. “You don’t know her. She’d never let me get away with all that. And maybe I don’t want to, maybe I want to stand on my own two feet.”
“Pah, that’s another problem, you stand on your feet while the rest of us fly far above your head.”
Meredith pressed her lips together and carefully selected the next cog in the sequence. The gloriously rotund witch huffed out a breath while brushing her stringy mop of gray hair away from her forehead. “That was obnoxious, I shouldn’t remind you. Have you tried appealing the suspension yet? It’s been quite some time.”
Meredith kept silent as the cog clicked in place. She reached for the conduit box and pulled out a coil of finespun filament. After cutting the appropriate length, she used pliers and thumb to wrap it in the prescribed pattern around the gears.
“I’m grounded in perpetuity,” she quietly said. “You know that.”
“But surely it’s been long enough? You should talk to her about it, she won’t hold a grudge forever. It wasn’t that bad.”
“I don’t miss flying, I never liked it anyway. I’d rather walk and stand on my feet at all times, thank you.”
Devalka eyed her colleague for a while, but said nothing. It wasn’t long until words found a way out of her mouth again.
“They finally caught the forger, did you know?”
She prattled on unprompted about all kinds of sordid details Meredith didn’t care about. If asked, she could’ve only remembered a few words here and there: tribal gorgon, big counterfeit stash, stunt accomplice, heinous deviant, gabber gabber gabber. Meredith kept to her work, now and then interjecting suitable acknowledging noises.
“Why do these fools even try?” Val wondered at the end of her story. “Every now and then fake coin turns up, and they never get away with it. Vanuuren’s system is infallible.”
Meredith carefully threaded the conduit into the switch, then connected the other end. She flipped the switch a few times, ensuring it made contact. She reached into the box for case bolts and found it empty.
“Maybe they do,” she said after buzzing the button directly in front of the slot for the box, “but you only hear about the ones that get caught.”
Val let out a blaring guffaw, much louder than the comment warranted. “Yes, good point. I hadn’t thought of that.”
From the hallway came the shuffle of chains, and a moment later a stunt walked in carrying a box full of screws. Chain links clinked with his every movement as he walked behind the desk and grunted the box onto it. The move wafted his unpleasantly intriguing scent into Meredith’s nostrils, a pungent mix of sweat and iron. Had he jacked his odor neutralizer again? Perhaps it had simply malfunctioned.
He grabbed the empty container, slid it out from its slot, set it aside and snapped the new one in place, well-defined muscles shifting under his soot-covered skin.
“Thank you,” Meredith said.
The stunt nodded and began walking away. Perspiration ran in streaks down the dirt on his bare back, making the scars clearly stand out.
Meredith made a conscious effort to stop looking and peered into the new container. “Oh, um, excuse me,” she called after him. The stunt turned around.
“I’m sorry, these are A-4’s. I need A-2’s.”
He frowned. He walked back to the desk, yanked the full box out of the slot and started toward the door.
“Stop right there.”
Val’s deep-set eyes stared darkly at the worker. She’d stood up, clutching in her knuckle-haired fingers the talisman around her neck. Her enormous artificer robe flopped around her body like a wet blanket on a mammoth’s back.
“That is no way to behave before your superiors.”
He remained in place, still facing the door.
“You have made a mistake. What do you say?”
The hand not carrying the box clenched into a fist. He turned around stiffly. After glaring at the fearsome hag, he bowed his head in Meredith’s direction.
“Muh,” he said.
“It’s alright,” Meredith responded, slightly wide-eyed. “Scathe undone. Please go now.”
“I didn’t understand you,” said Val as if Meredith hadn’t spoken. “You’ll have to repeat that.”
The stunt went from stiff to taut, like a predator about to pounce. His shoulders trembled with his breath. He bowed again, deep enough for Meredith to see the number seared on the back of his bare head. 413.
“It’s alright, really. Honestly. Please.”
Val wasn’t satisfied. A sneer twisted her features, tiny teeth and large gums in full display.
“What is your defect, boy? You are simple-minded, is that it? You must be, a simple-minded bell-bottom. No need for the mumjob, here, you are too dense to articulate words. I could bet my brood and estate it took decades to teach you even the simplest of tasks. Can you even understand the words I say, or should I limit myself to gesticulation?”
He took a step toward her. She smiled with dark hunger, the kind of smile a hag of her caliber might reserve for a particularly succulent meal. The stunt halted, glaring so intensely Meredith half-expected Val to drop dead on the spot.
“Is that a threat, boy? Are you threatening me?”
He brought up his manacled hand.
Though still no word could be understood, his upward-thrusting thumb left no room for interpretation. Not waiting for a response, he turned around to leave.
Devalka Tremmel-Stohlz-Vanuuren needed a moment to find her tongue. Her knuckles went white on the hand clutching her amulet. “Do that again. I dare you.”
The human stopped. He turned back to her, chains clinking. He raised his hand again. He extended his thumb and made an up-thrust motion.
He let the gesture linger for a while, shook it a bit for emphasis. His scowl was deep, his chest was heaving. Devalka’s eyes widened.
“I really need those A-2’s!” Meredith hurried toward the stunt. “Better go get them now, before I get angry!” She shoved him through the door while darting glances at her coworker.
He finally left for the appropriate parts, his indignant shuffle fading under machine noises. Meredith frowned at Val. “You have to stop doing that.”
Val burst out laughing. “Serves him right, I keep losing on wagers because of him.”
“You still go to the fight pits?”
“There’s nothing better to do on Naughtday, you’re the mug for not coming. The odds keep going up, he’ll choke on sand eventually, give it time.” Devalka was chuckling, shaking her head. “I’m so tickled he still has a backbone. One day I’ll get him to lunge at me.”
Meredith rolled her eyes. “I don’t understand why you won’t leave be. They’re already in chains, what more do you want?”
“After what they did? They deserve it all.”
“He does? He couldn’t have fought in the rebellions, it’s been nearly a hundred years. You didn’t fight in the rebellions, either.”
Devalka’s mirth faded slowly. Her tone became guarded. “I was still in the academy at the time. I remember enough.”
“It’s not the first time you defend them. You are no sympathizer, are you?”
Meredith tensed as if Val had pulled a knife on her. “N– no, I just don’t want a corpse on my lap, I’d rather let them be!”
Val’s expression didn’t change. “You do look at him strangely sometimes. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Should I be worried you might be a deviant?”
“What? No, he―” Meredith realized she’d raised her voice and switched to loud whispers. “He terrifies me! All of them do! You don’t know what it’s like for me, I can’t defend myself the way you can. Not to mention Gertrude will be livid if she needs to report a death because of you, and she’ll find a way to blame it on me, somehow!”
The clinking shuffle returned, making Meredith jump away from the door and line up next to Devalka. They watched in silence as the stunt installed the box on Meredith’s desk—until Val’s sneer twisted to a disgusted wince. “What is that foul stench?” She sniffed with squinted eyes and frowning lips. “Is it you, boy? Why is it that you reek this way again?”
Her face scrunched up in the most ridiculous way, and she sneezed. Meredith didn’t believe her eyes when they told her a smirk had flashed on the serf’s lips.
“Yeugh! You did it on purpose, didn’t you?” Devalka sneezed again. “Get out, you! Begone!”
He calmly walked out with the empty box under his arm. Val called after him: “I hope the discipline report was worth it! Irreverence is expensive for a servant, let’s see if you can afford it.”
No acknowledgement came. Meredith and Devalka looked at one another. Val very pointedly leaned away from her.
Meredith scoffed. “I’m not a sympathiser,” she said, “and I’m not a deviant, Malkin strike me. I want nothing to do with them, good or bad, and that’s all. Can we please get back to work?”
Val returned to her station. The reserved, thoughtful looks kept happening. Meredith exhaled a nervous sigh through her nose. “Sanity’s sake, I’m not a deviant! I was pining after Yurena for a whole year, remember? You wouldn’t stop bothering me to say something to her, don’t you remember that?” She went back to her seat and fiddled with her equipment, indignant in her every motion. A few moments passed.
“And yet you didn’t ever approach her,” Val finally replied.
“I did. I asked her for a job, and I got laughed at. So that’s the end of that story.”
“Hm. That’s not the same as approaching her.”
Hands held back from anxiously wringing her apron, Meredith hid the fear behind a scowl and faced Val head-on. “I can’t believe you’re accusing me like this. When you blabbed about your affair with human music, I didn’t think of it twice. In fact, I never mentioned again, like you asked. And this is what loyalty gets me?”
Their eyes met, and Val’s impassiveness broke into a tiny-toothed smile. “Oh, don’t be cross, I don’t truly suspect you!” She reached over to slap Meredith’s knee. “I wanted to see how you’d react, is all. Now and then I like to test newer broods like yourself, and that deviant forger story gave me some strange ideas.”
Meredith shrunk back, lips drawn to a line. Her voice trembled with emotion. “It’s very upsetting to be accused like that. What if anyone heard you? The last thing I need is such a horrendous rumour spreading, on top of everything else.”
“Come now, no-one would take it seriously. . . .”
“You don’t know that. But you do know not everyone supports Frau around here. A rumour like that would be another way to smear her name.”
“Fine, yes, you’re right.” Devalka let out a husky breath. “I wasn’t serious, Meredith. I apologise. By my words and power, I swear I didn’t mean any of it.”
Meredith blinked a few times. She’d expected to be shushed and dismissed.
“That’s, um.” She cleared her throat. “That’s alright.” She turned to her work and needlessly readjusted the brace holding the trinket in place. “I’m glad we talked about it. Thank you.”
“Mm-hmm.” Devalka picked up her iron and flipped the switch to power it up, ready to continue etching wordpaths upon her current project. She spent some time paging through her manual.
“You know,” she mused without looking up, “now I’m thinking I needn’t go that far. Maybe I shouldn’t file for discipline. What do you think?”
The question was posed casually, conversationally. It might have been sincere. It truly could have been.
“No,” Meredith responded. “You did the right thing. He should be punished for his insolence. We don’t tolerate that behaviour under any circumstances.”
She spoke without tension, as though alluding to a rebellious pet that refused to do as taught.
Which was exactly the case.
“Of course, yes. You’re right.”
Meredith strove to set the matter aside and dive back into her work. Reaching for those accursed A-2 bolts, she noticed the sleeves of her blouse were now dark with soot and dirt. It would bother her all day.
It should’ve been an artificer robe getting dirty, but Meredith was never issued one. They never hesitated to remind her she was no artificer.
She dug into the box and found hundreds of bolts. It barely registered when a handful flew into her pocket, all of their own volition. More inconsequential gossip was soon flying out of Val’s mouth, and Meredith feigned interest with practiced timeliness, though perhaps her efforts were more listless than usual. If her colleague noticed, she didn’t care to comment on it.
Meredith’s thoughts were somewhere else entirely.
CELL 12-D, BLOCK FOUR. The log said he was booked a span after midday, immediately following the incident.
The expansive cell blocks were a holdover of times past, when the building had another purpose entirely and the oversupply of retrievals would need to be held in captivity before harvest. Though she knew the blueprints well by then, it had taken a while to reach the holding cell without alerting the one team on patrol.
“Um,” Meredith said. She nervously pulled her cowl tighter around the full face-mask. “Hey, you.”
Calling them by their number seemed so rude.
He sat motionless on a cot, brooding. He was barefoot and dressed in threadbare rags. His chains hung from a peg outside the barred door.
“Human.” She rapped a knuckle on one of the bars, her desire to be quiet conflicting with the sense of urgency. He finally looked at her.
“Um, hi. I know what happened today. I’m here to– to make amends.”
He remained still, glaring. She was almost positive he could still understand her through the mask’s voice distortion.
“I have something. For you. Just . . . a gesture. To say . . . to say we’re not all alike. No-one should be treated like this.”
The intruder produced a white handkerchief from one of her pockets. She unwrapped it to reveal a few dry leaves and a small vial containing a pasty white-greenish substance. They easily fit between the cell’s bars.
“Hide this under the cot for later. The herbs are for pain. Two leaves per dose. Fold the leaf and place it under your tongue―” She darted a glance at his mouth. “Um. Just– just fold it until it cracks and suckle on it, don’t swallow it. The salve is for burns. Just in case. Apply it generously, it’ll sting at first but it’s worth the trouble, you’ll heal much faster.”
She left them on the floor by the cell’s entry. The stunt kept still. Then he stood, and Meredith hurried beyond arm’s reach. He picked up the herbs and looked at them.
“It’s gramrout. I grow it. It’s not a trick, I promise.”
He considered them for a little while longer, eyes narrow. He then held up the herbs so she could clearly see him crush them and toss them through the gap between bars. He grabbed a handful of hay from the cot, covered the salve container and proceeded to smash it with his foot, the sound of breaking glass muffled by the hay. Once he was done, he very thoughtfully slid the mess out of the cell.
“Go away,” he managed to say.
She regarded the ruined items with a grimace.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she told him. The human kept staring.
“But I thought you might.” She produced another handkerchief with identical contents. “Please take this. Please. Leave what remains under the cot, no-one will know. You’re not my first.”
Meredith went to slide the bundle across the floor, but she caught herself half-squat. Instead, she took a hesitant step forward. Her hand trembled as she extended it through the bars. Her insides were doing jumping jacks.
“We can trust each other,” she said.
He stood motionless, tense—his hand lunged forth and clamped on her wrist. Meredith let out a strangled yelp, but didn’t let go of the bundle. The words to a fatal temperature rise inside the human’s skull tingled on her tongue, ready to be unleashed . . . and then vanished, dispersed by the overpowering scent of sweat and soot wafting through.
His fingers, grimy and dreadfully strong, dug into her skin. He glared at her for long moments. He could probably break her bones with a sharp flick of his hand.
“If you hurt me,” Meredith stammered, “you will die.”
They stared at one another. Meredith’s breath was fast and shallow. He couldn’t recognize her, could he? The mask’s mesh obscured her eyes, though it didn’t fully blot them out. She wanted to squirm and struggle, maybe gibber a little at how dirty everything was, but she forced herself to hold her ground.
His fingers stopped threatening to crush her wrist, and the stunt laughed, a low and bitter laugh that was almost a cough. His eyes seemed to shift, tempered steel crumbling to brittle rust. I will die? Meredith all but heard. What is my life worth?
The mewlings of the sentries resonated through the hallway.
“Take it. Please. Just take it.”
He released her arm and stepped deeper into the cell. “Go,” he said. He didn’t take the bundle.
“I’m leaving it here.” Meredith ignored the groan and tucked the items to the side of the door, pressing them against the wall between cells. She glanced down the hallway. A four-legged silhouette was projected on the stone bricks, around the corner. She hastily scooped the ruined items and dumped them in another pocket. “Stop being stubborn,” she said as parting words before gathering her robes and scampering away from the approaching shadows.
It wasn’t too difficult to keep a good lead: the patrolling juditors were bored out of their minds, complacent by rote and quietude. Her path turned several lefts and several rights, doubling back to the surreptitious staff access she’d used to sneak into the laborers’ wing of the manufactory.
Back in daylight, she heaved a sigh of relief, unclasped the mask and deactivated the scent suppressor. Meredith leaned against a nearby wall, letting all the adrenaline and nervous jitters work their way out of her system. There was no-one around to see her panting.
“I can’t believe I did this, today of all days.”
She readjusted her robe and resumed walking at a brisk pace, eyes darting around for witnesses. It wasn’t just guards she had to worry about. The Circle would chew off her fingers if they caught wind of her unsanctioned escapades.
Meredith noted the position of the sun. “Thank the Stones, there’s still time.”
The market wouldn’t close for at least another span. Long enough to get her deeply embarrassing shopping done.
There was only one more chance to capture a youth for harvest, and she was willing to try anything by this point.
EVERYTHING WAS READY.
Her command rod functioned properly. The new entrapment orb, bought at an outrageous premium on such short notice, was meticulously configured. She’d scrambled the space-fold coordinates and aligned them from scratch, thrice. Every switch was in the correct setting, none of it was stuck or half-cocked. Her chalk marks were still fresh on the cobbles from measuring the exact distance and angle at which to stand, she’d recited the words well over a hundred times and practiced her infusion for a whole half-span.
She’d also burned five candles at the points of a pentagram, sprinkled salt and iron filings in front of the portal, tediously braided and feathered her hair. She’d dabbed paint on her face (Enchanted Indigo), poured raven blood (bought by the vial) on goat bones (minor contraband) and drawn sigils on each pillar with a lump of coal (they didn’t say anything magical, as far as she knew.) Her stomach grumbled from the day’s fast—having thrown up in the morning counted as fasting, in her book—and her skin was roused with goosebumps from wearing only bead strings and leather straps.
All proven obsolete or worthless, but Mifraulde’s anger begat desperation. It had felt different, this time. Like genuine contempt.
Like an ultimatum.
“Let’s get it done,” she muttered without much conviction. Inspecting the wordpaths on the space-fold frame had revealed a fleck of gunk stuck to some of the output grooves, definitely interfering with the alignment on the back end. She would be filing a strongly worded complaint about that.
She powered the device and got in position. An uneasy squirm continued to bother her stomach, half reluctance, half trepidation. The walk-in closet door from the attempt at dawn was in display, slightly cracked open, and through the sliver of light she peeked at the youth. She lied belly-down on her bed, features somber as she wrote on a notebook while listening to something on one ear-wire. Unwitting, defenseless, isolated. A perfect opportunity.
The quarter-span to dusk struck, and she opened the gateway without fuss. The image morphed into the standard funnel of flushing colors, a frustrating quirk of light as it warped through the active threshold to Earth. Meredith raised the entrapment orb and let it begin humming.
A proper witch would’ve been thrilled with such a clear-cut retrieval, yet Meredith felt nothing but dread. In fact, a proper, licensed witch would have gone into the portal, scouted ahead, made sure it was worth the trouble, and then she’d have quickly snatched the youth.
The thought further tightened the knot in her gut. No, never again. She still had bad dreams about the license field test and how wrong it had gone. The screams, the chaos, the savage beating—and that atrocious human jail cell, where she’d been too bruised to cast even the smallest cantrip. If Mifraulde hadn’t rescued her. . . .
Ancient stones, she’d been livid at the mess. No wonder she was fed up. She’d been burdened with her brood-sister’s failures ten times too many. The bond of their youth seemed so far away, now: the tag-teaming on chores, the hushed instructor mockery, the bunk bed battles, the sharing rations and punishments and toilet prank buggery in the dorms. It had all changed after Frau was plucked from Brena’s academy and sent off to the posh Valeni conservatories, and again after her years at the Tarkan practicum. But even when she’d come back groomed and empowered beyond her already considerable talent, they’d always shared—
The colors buckled, and a young human girl stepped into view.
She climbed down from portal to courtyard as if it was the last step in a set of stairs. Her chin-length hair hung about her face in flaxen waves, bobbing from side to side as she turned her head this way and that. Her eyes, big and blue, drifted in wonder before anchoring onto Meredith. Or rather, only one of them did.
“Finally,” the youth said, voice hushed with reverence. Her white nightgown fluttered in the twilight breeze. “It finally happened.”
Meredith stared, barely hearing the words. Her finger, gingerly resting on the entrapment switch, should have already pressed down on the trigger—and yet she stared, thoughts seized in gridlock, breath caught between lungs and teeth.
The youth was oozing with spark, yes, at last. It was easy for a mature witch to detect the spark in a human child, easy even for a witch of her lackluster attunement. It was an unmistakable buzz, an alluring bend to the senses charged with untapped potential. The human had enough of it to fashion its own gravity well, but this was not what held Meredith as if spellbound.
Latent magical power was a much subtler sensation. A perceptive witch could get a whiff of it when close enough to another, touch it with her mind and take measure of it, if she concentrated. It was a tenuous aura, a scent that wasn’t smelled, a sound that was felt more than heard. In all of Meredith’s life, only when close to Mifraulde had she ever felt it in a significant way.
It definitely wasn’t a presence that jumped at somebody, and grabbed her by the ears, and yelled “look at me!” right in her face. It didn’t visibly radiate from a thaumaturge like heat off of molten glass.
It wasn’t supposed to, at least.
“I’ve dreamt of this for so long,” the youth said, eyes round with awe, bright with zeal. “Is this Avalon? Are you . . . are you the . . . the Arcanist?”
Meredith’s belated response came through the fog in her mind.
“Witch. I’m a witch. You are in our realm. Galavan.”
“Oh, a witch! I didn’t want to say it, they always say witches are bad, but I knew it wasn’t true, I knew it!”
There had been no mistake this time. She looked the same as on the viewport. This youth, this human girl Meredith had scouted only last night . . . she was a spark’t witch, an Earthborn witch. Attuned to magic while brimming with spark. The most precious find.
Spark’t witches used to be the norm, before the Civil War, before the Desolation. Back then, the witches of Galavan would seek out the Earthborn and rescue them from the rabble. These days they were sought for a much different purpose. How could one so plentiful slip past the Department of Harvest for so long?
“I’ve never read of Galavan,” the youth continued, “but it makes so much sense. The real thing is what you never hear about.” Her little smile was one part sheepish, two parts impish. “The real thing is the secret. Right?”
Meredith blinked. “It’s named after the Galvan brood. She was the first of the furies.”
The girl gave a few giddy little jumps, dainty fists shaking with delight. In her hand she still carried her screen-gadget-thing, with its ear-wires neatly rolled around it.
“Oh, I knew it, I knew it! This is marvelous!”
In current times, the spark was the exception instead of the rule, and magical talent alongside it nearly extinct. For hundreds of years the lineages had diluted, the sites of power and leylines within Earth dwindled to trickles, no longer able to infuse vast swathes of the population. Many regions could no longer produce harvestable youths at all. The systematic retrieval and exploitation hadn’t helped matters, either.
“I’ve dreamt of this my whole life,” the girl repeated. “I’ve wished so hard for you to be real, and you’ve finally come for me!”
And yet here was this youth, this . . . girl. Enough spark to drown the power grid for a year all by itself. More attuned than anyone Meredith knew, certainly more attuned than the current Head of the Coven. Her latent power was a brick-stuffed cushion in the middle of a pillow fight.
“You . . . what?”
The girl nodded excitedly. “I’d go into the closet and wish for it. Wish with all my heart. Magic had to be real, it had to.” She stepped forward, hands clasped to her chest. “I promise to do my best for you, I’ll learn everything, I won’t ever want to go back.”
Meredith blinked. She had a wandering right eye, this girl. Half-lidded, glazed, unfocused. A well-documented witchmark, mostly found in the Tremmel brood.
In the ensuing silence the girl shrunk in place, as if a terrible possibility had just occurred to her. “You . . . you are taking me in, right? To be your apprentice? Oh, please say yes, please.”
“Abbabbah,” Meredith uttered mindlessly.
This was not a good thing. This was the furthest from a good thing. It would cover her quota this year, sure—but it would also lead to interviews and close scrutiny of her retrieval process. They’d want to analyze every square meter of her courtyard, maybe even give credence to some of the superstitious tripe she’d employed.
And they would search the house, of course. They’d poke their noses in every corner of her privacy, looking for a cause beyond the most random of coincidences.
“I’m Janette. You can call me Jane if . . . if you like. Not Nettie, though. I hate that.”
The protocol was clear. She ought to have engaged the entrapment by now. The girl would never learn to use all that power, they would plug her into a pod and eventually take her to the breeding grounds. It was procedure.
“Your garden is beautiful. What happened to all those dead flowers over there?”
“My brood-sister killed them.”
A shame. No, a tragedy. The girl had so much talent. Meredith felt a twinge of envy as her senses explored the youth’s aura. Just one high-end trinket infused through that kind of attunement, backed with such an obscene spark-load, could afford an entire year’s worth of food. Good food, none of the moldy cheese and wilted cabbage from Reva’s ramshackle market stall.
“It’s such a pretty house, really. Very cozy. Just lovely.”
“It was a decrepit ruin when I moved in.”
What wouldn’t she give to have such power at her disposal? To break free from mediocrity and humiliation, to have Mifraulde’s respect, to forget the meaning of the word “budget” and never again deprive herself just to add a couple piggy coins to her pitiful stash. And the tools she could buy! A full set for the garden, her own manufacturing bench, a functional sewing machine, Ferris steel knives and shiny new pots and pans for the kitchen. . . .
“Your accent is so old-fashioned. I wish I spoke like that.”
Meredith couldn’t get past the wave of resentment coming over, resentment at the youth for her power, resentment at the Universe for its crass sense of humor. Here she was, found wanting every day of her life, while this girl’s potential as a witch would never come to fruition. The spark throbbing in her flesh guaranteed her own undoing.
What a waste.
“Is . . . is this a test?” The girl fidgeted in place. “Am I being tested? Should I keep quiet?”
Unless. . . .
Meredith’s eyes widened at the idea that sprung in her thoughts.
It was crazy. Deranged. Beyond illegal.
“I’m worthy, Muh– Madam, I swear. Let me prove myself, I won’t disappoint you. Please.”
To pull it off, she’d need equipment she didn’t have. A soundstill. A workbench. A dead room. She could make it work with some inventive thrift. And none of it had to be permanent: if the youth became troublesome, if she was too dense or too much of a handful, she’d just abort the plan and . . . dispose of her. Still a better fate for her than being turned in.
“Oh, I get it! The crystal ball . . . you’re predicting my future, right? Divining my soul, to see if I’m worthy, right? I’ll be the best apprentice you ever had, just . . . please, let me in. Let me stay. I’ll do anything to learn from you, whatever you ask.”
Meredith looked back and forth from the entrapment orb to the wide-eyed youth. The sixteenth span chimed from the living room clock, marking the start of the sun’s fade from the skyveil.
“I used this to draw you here,” Meredith said. “It serves no other purpose whatsoever.” She quickly tucked it in one of her pockets—except her current outfit was nothing but beads and leather straps. The trinket bounced on the cobbles with a metallic clatter.
The girl tracked it as it rolled to a stop between seams. Her right eye dragged behind, as if interested in something else altogether. “Oh.”
“Yes, you may be my apprentice. Yes. That’s why I lured you here. I’m in need of a new apprentice.”
The youth clasped her hands together, face lit up with the brightest, most joyful smile Meredith had ever seen. “Oh– oh, my god, truly?”
“Y– yes. Yes, you may start―”
With a giddy jump and squeal the girl ran forth and threw her arms around her new mentor, pressing one side of her face onto Meredith’s chest. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you!”
“Um, that’s alright, ah. . . .” She kept her hands out to the sides, breath catching in her throat. Didn’t humans often carry contagious diseases?
“I’ll be the best apprentice you’ve ever had, I’ll work so hard, I’ll do all the chores, I’ll study for hours and do everything you say!”
Meredith awkwardly patted her head. The girl’s hair was a bit coarse, like freshly spun flax.
“I’m sure you’ll surpass all the . . . um, the many other apprentices I’ve had. Settle down, now. This . . . this isn’t proper.”
“Oh, sorry! I’m so sorry!” The youth quickly let go and stepped back. She squirmed a bit before resolutely squaring her shoulders. “I mean . . . I apologise, Mah– Madam. Mistress. Is that how I should address you? Mistress?”
“Yes. Yes, that will do.” The witch cleared her throat. “Mistress Meredith.”
“It’s an honour to meet you, Mistress Meredith. I’m ready. I’ve wanted this for so long. Everyone made fun of me, but I knew it would happen eventually, I knew it.”
Meredith walked over to the space-fold, wooden beads chattering, thoughts racing. She was doing this. Yes, she was doing this.
She laid a finger on the off-switch. “My . . . previous apprentices would tell you that you must be committed. There will be many rules, and you must follow all of them. You understand? You must . . . you must prove yourself worthy. Yes, indeed.” She glanced at the portal. “Once I close this gate, you won’t be able to go back. Are you worthy of staying on this side?”
“Yes! Yes, Mistress.” The girl’s nostrils were flared like she couldn’t fit enough air in her chest. Fervor glinted in her eye. “It’s my fate, it’s finally happening. There’s nothing for me back there. I don’t want to see them ever again.”
“Um, alright. I mean, yes, that pleases me.” Meredith flipped the switch and the swirling colors blinked out of existence. The low-pitch hum revved down and died a slow death. “And so your fate is sealed,” The Mistress said in a very official capacity.
The girl smiled a hungry, near manic grin. She looked her new guardian up and down. “Should I take off my nighty and don the beads now? How should I paint my face?”
“No, no. No beads, no paint. This is all” superstitious bunk “ritual garb.” Meredith’s eyes ambled through the courtyard. “Apprentices wear . . . grey cowls.” She paused briefly. “Your first official task is to sew your own. An ancient tradition.”
“Oh.” The youth looked crestfallen. “I don’t know how to sew.”
“I’ll, um, I’ll teach you in the traditional way, as is common and proper. We have a lot of tradition. You will see.”
“Oh, okay. That sounds like fun, Mistress Meredith.”
Meredith’s stomach grumbled loud enough for the girl to dip her chin at it. The hunger and the cold helped brush aside the mind-numbing prospect of getting caught doing this. For the moment, at least. There was a lot of cleanup to do before bedtime, and just getting the space-fold ready for tomorrow’s pickup would take a third-span.
She looked at the youth. Janette. I’ll do all the chores, she had said.
“We’ll begin immediately, then. You will help me tidy up everything. The cold will keep our pace brisk.”
Janette nodded, very solemn, very eager. This is a terrible idea, a voice kept repeating in Meredith’s head. She studiously ignored it, focusing instead on the intense aura emanating from the girl and the intense hunger rumbling in her belly.
“There’s much work ahead of us, apprentice.”
Janette beamed at the word. “I’m ready, Mistress.” She offered up her gadget. “Should I throw the phone away? I’m ready to embrace magic, one hundred percent.”
Phone. Right. Devalka had said something about half of Earth’s humans being permanently attached to one of those, nowadays.
Meredith gravely took the device in her hands. “That is commendable,” she said, and carried it to the small table full of containers she’d set up for the evening. “But know that magic and technology don’t exclude one another.”
“Oh. Well, it’s hardly more than a music player, anyway. It’s all locked up so I don’t. . . .” She rolled her eyes. “You know.”
Mistress Meredith didn’t know at all, so she simply set the thing down and moved on. Focus on one problem at a time, that’s all she had to do. “Bring the mop, broom, dustpan and bucket from the corner. The scrubbing brush and soap are on those shelves.” She pointed. “I’ll instruct you on what to do while I work on the space-fold device.”
The girl took off running toward the cleaning tools, bare feet slapping on the cobbles. Meredith walked up to the machine and began unlatching clasps around the frame. This is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had, the voice said.
I’m tired of listening to you, she replied. This is my chance to do better. It’s worth the risk. It’ll work out.
Janette returned with sloshing bucket and stringy mop, left them on the floor and went back for more. Meredith continued her inner dialogue as she worked her way through the latches.
You can still change your mind. Entrap the youth, turn her in, answer the questions and enjoy a year of peace. They won’t even glance at your precious shelves.
And then nothing changes, and I’ll have to meet the quota again next year. You heard Val. I could bribe my way out of the yearly turn-in. You know it happens.
You are missing the quota now. You won’t make this work in a year’s time, it’s impossible. Mifraulde will be furious, you will be executed or worse. Turn in the youth.
Meredith clenched her jaw.
Janette dropped brush, bar of soap and broom next to mop and bucket. She eyed Mistress Meredith expectantly.
“Start by picking up all the debris,” Meredith said. “We’ll salvage the candles, but throw everything else. There’s an empty sack on the table.”
The girl set to work, broom and dustpan in hand. Meredith continued relaying instructions as she finished unlatching clasps and disengaging safety pins. She separated the functional device from the base and spent the next fifteen centispan wrapping it in canvas for safe transport. After that, she worked the spring mechanisms on the bulky support structure until it was folded into a tight bundle, then wheeled it over to the wall and leaned the wrapped device over it. She flipped a switch nearby and the lamps overhead came on, illuminating the scene with white-green light. The girl lifted her head to look at them, but didn’t comment.
Meredith took up mop and bucket and joined the cleanup, working in silence whenever no new instructions were necessary. It was simple, one task at a time. The sun finished fading and a full moon appeared in its place, at the mid-point between zenith and horizon.
Janette asked no questions and voiced no complaints, fully focused on the work even as her skin roused with gooseflesh, her feet turned so pale they were almost blue, her knees got skinned against the cobbles and her hands became raw from handling brush and cold water. She did often look longingly toward the kitchen door by the time she was done scrubbing coal marks off the pillars.
“This is good enough,” Meredith finally declared. “Let’s stash away all this and go inside.”
The girl wasted no time gathering all the tools and taking them back to their corner. Meredith loaded a tray with the evening’s materials and carried it in one arm, hauling the sack of refuse with the other. Janette met her halfway to the door and wordlessly took hold of the sack, looking up adoringly at her new mentor.
Meredith let go with a pleased smile. “We’ll leave it by the fire. Between Desmond, the chimney and the compost pile, nothing ever goes to waste in this house.”
“He’s in his pen. You’ll meet him tomorrow.” Meredith tilted her head toward the door. “Let’s go warm up.”
Janette nodded emphatically. Mistress and apprentice all but ran into the kitchen.
THE GIRL SAT AT THE TABLE, huddled in a blanket. Her nose and cheeks were ruddy and she sniffled occasionally. The abused remains of a cloth napkin lay crumpled in front of her.
Meredith leaned against the counter in her thick red robe, braids undone, face paint washed off and beads put away. She was looking at her charge with carefully concealed dread. The extent of her unpreparedness was an ever-growing chasm gaping between her feet, made apparent from the moment the girl had asked for a “Kleenex” to blow her nose.
The newly-invested Mistress couldn’t guess at how to properly care for a human youth. She had no spare bed, no wardrobe that would fit the girl, no sanctioned gruel to feed her. They didn’t eat regular witch food, did they? What she’d been fed that one time on Earth had not resembled anything she’d ever choose to eat.
This is the absolute worst idea—
Shut up shut up shut up shut up.
She gave a little start. “Yes?”
“I don’t mean disrespect, but . . . is supper going to be any time soon? I left right before dinnertime.”
“Oh, yes, of course. Dinner.” Meredith walked over to the frost-box with purposeful strides, as if she knew exactly what to fetch. She unlatched the hook and lifted the lid. “Hmm.”
Her heart sank at the sight of the meager contents. She’d blown her budget on today’s shopping, and no payday until Sixday. She might have to do the unthinkable and borrow from her sad little stash before then.
“I’ve been so busy, I forgot to stock up on a few things. I might have to feed you something you’re not accustomed to.”
“Oh, I– I don’t mind. I’m . . . I’ll become a witch, true? I should eat like one.”
“True, yes.” Meredith leaned into the frost-box and rummaged for a bit, as if spoiled for choice. “Well then. We’ll have . . . bread, fried eggs and sausage?”
Janette breathed out with relief. “Yes, thank god, that would be great. I was so afraid you’d say basilisk eyes and lizard tails.”
Meredith fished out four eggs from the no-frost section, held them precariously in one hand and closed the lid. “Humans eat those? What’s a basilisk?”
“No, um, they’re . . . scaly, and bigger than an alligator, and turn you to stone with their breath. You don’t have basilisks?”
“No, and rather glad we don’t, by the sound of it.”
“How about dragons? Surely you have dragons.”
“Dragons.” She left the eggs on the counter. “Big, leathery wings? Fire-breathing?”
“No, no dragons.” Meredith opened the pantry, unhooked her last bit of cured sausage and grabbed her second-to-last loaf of very definitely not stale bread. “That’s a mythological creature, I thought. Do you have dragons on Earth now?”
“No, no.” Janette looked disheartened. “Wizards, at least? Or . . . warlocks.”
“No, wizards are an old myth, too.”
“Oh. I guess druids, as well?”
“Druids? Isn’t that like a wizard, but dirty?”
“I suppose, yeah.”
“No druids that I know of.”
“So no wizards at all?”
“I don’t think they even existed in the first place, to be honest.”
“Okay—trolls, then? Orcs and goblins? Ratmen? Elves? Vampires, maybe?”
Meredith kept shaking her head with a nonplussed pout. She set a cast iron pan on the stove-top, got a spoonful of lard from its jar and splatted it on the pan. She rotated the dial to high.
“Umm . . . fairies? Dryads? Necromancers?”
“Pfft. Necromancy, what a hoax, don’t get me started. Fell for it once. Lil’ Sumo just twitched and shambled for a while, it was horrific. So foolish, but he was such a good pet, and I felt bad about the accident. . . .”
“Oh. Um. I’m sorry.”
“Why would you be sorry?”
“I’m sorry it happened.”
Lips pursed, Janette watched for a while as her new mentor cut the sausage in slices.
“Do you have any monsters?” she finally asked.
Meredith couldn’t suppress the smile. “Well, I have a brood-sister.”
“Oh! Is that some kind of– of monstrous overseer, watching over what you do? And you have to live up to the brood standards, or the brood-sister will come and punish you? Is that how it works?”
Yes to all of that, Meredith thought as the lard hissed and sizzled. “No. We shared a womb, that’s all. I was making a joke.”
“Aw. So you have a twin sister? Does she look just like you?”
“No. Mifraulde and I could not be any more different.”
“Oh. I asked because Brad and Bridget from my class kept saying they’re twins, but they look nothing alike, so I looked it up and it turns out there are different types of twins. So I guess it’s the same for you.”
Meredith didn’t quite know how to respond, so she didn’t. Eggs were soon out of their shells and gaining color in a very satisfying way.
“May I ask more questions, Mistress Meredith?”
“Um, yes. Yes, of course.”
“How many apprentices have you had so far?”
She gave the lie a short while to fully form as she sprinkled a pinch of salt and pepper over the rosy yolks.
“More than I care to count. Over twenty, certainly.”
“Oh, wow. Do you . . . am I the only one, right now? Is there, like, a class?”
“No, one at a time. Always one at a time. It’s a long and time-consuming process.”
How long would it take to teach this girl magic, anyway? How long until she could infuse—
“Long?” the girl asked. “How long is the apprenticeship, Mistress?”
Such a great question. At the Brena academy, witches were introduced to the basics at eight years old and were not expected to cast even the simplest thing for years. Frau had been a precocious brat, sneaking forbidden tomes into the dorms to infuse her very first cantrip at nine. Meredith hadn’t managed anything until she was thirteen.
For the plan to work, she’d need this girl to infuse trinkets worth selling within the span of a single year.
“It depends on you,” was the belated response, “and how much you apply yourself. How old are you?”
“I’m . . . I’ll be thirteen in May.”
“So you’re twelve.”
“Y– yeah, but I’ll work the hardest of them all, Mistress. I promise. I want to be the best.”
“Yes. I expect as much from you.”
The girl watched with great interest as Meredith transferred the eggs to the plates she’d prepared, distributed sausage and bread in equal amounts and brought dishes and forks to the table. She pulled a pair of tall glasses from a cupboard, took them to a fat clay jug on the counter and carefully poured brook-crisp water into them. Finally, she pinched Janette’s napkin between thumb and forefinger, tossed it into the sink and brought two more napkins over.
“Thank you, Mistress Meredith.”
“It’s not much, I know. Witches eat frugally.”
“It’s plenty. Just the right amount.”
Janette reached for the fork. Meredith’s chest tightened at the sight of the girl’s hands. “This might sound strange to you, but it is customary for us to always wash our hands before eating.”
“Oh!” Janette looked down at her palms. “Oh, gross!” She hastily stood, her chair almost tipping over as it clattered backwards. “I completely forgot to wash, this is all so new, it didn’t cross my mind! You must think I’m a savage now.”
Meredith was slightly alarmed at the girl’s aghast demeanor. “It’s, uh, it’s alright. Scathe undone. There’s the sink, now, use as much soap as you need.”
Janette shed her blanket, hurried to the counter, opened the tap, grabbed the bar of soap and began scrubbing.
“Bosh. I feel silly for saying it, but I didn’t think there would be running water here.”
“I’m at the edge of the wood farms, but this is still part of Brena. Running water is a basic commodity. Isn’t it so for humans?”
“Well, yeah. Kind of, it depends where you live in the world. What I mean is . . . I thought this would be medieval times? Hauling buckets of water from the well, lighting candles and so on, but you have electricity!” Janette giggled bashfully. “I’m so relieved.”
Meredith spoke while concentrating on cutting the egg whites in orderly squares. “Well, it used to be raw spark flowing through the power grid, but as supply dwindled we adapted a lot of Earth technology into our systems. It’s far more efficient to generate electricity first.”
Meredith stopped her sausage placements mid-motion and realized what she’d so casually mentioned. “Oh, never mind that,” she said, and waved a dismissive fork. “It’s, um. Obsolete technology. We’ve come a long way, as has your own civilization.”
“I can’t wait to hear all about the history of Galavan, Mistress Meredith.” The girl dried her hands with a rag and went back to the table. She pulled in the chair before sitting down, adoring smile on her lips. “I still can’t believe this is happening. I’m so excited.”
“Hm. I’m glad to hear it, but I hope you understand it’s not all going to be frolic and harvest, here. You’ll be working very hard for your magic.”
Saying the word magic switched on a light behind the girl’s eyes, every single time.
“Y– yes, I understand, I do. Thank you so much for choosing me, Mistress.”
“Right, yes, well. You are smart and talented, or you wouldn’t be here. I’m sure you’ll prove yourself worth the trouble.”
“Oh, I hope so. This is all so new. I’m worried I’ll make too many mistakes.”
“I am fully aware you will need time to learn and adapt, apprentice. You’re not my first, remember?”
Janette fell silent for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she finally said, “but is that the way I should eat this meal, Mistress Meredith?”
Meredith looked down at her arrangement of bread-egg-sausage towers.
“Um.” She adjusted one of the towers slightly so it wouldn’t tip over. “Yes, absolutely. It’s tradition.”
“There’s so much I don’t know. I’ll work hard to get everything right, I promise.”
Janette proceeded to emulate her, cutting and placing the food in neat little piles of bread at the bottom, slice of cured sausage in the middle and egg white on top. The yolks were at the center of a circle of food towers.
Meredith drew an entirely disproportionate amount of satisfaction from watching the girl copy her irrational compulsion.
“Yes, well done. We may now eat.” Meredith grabbed her fork. “Observe carefully.”
She pierced the yolks just enough for dipping and drove the fork through egg, sausage and bread. She dabbed the bread on the yolk before stuffing the whole thing in her mouth.
Janette followed the same steps, precisely mimicking the motions. She imitated Meredith’s “mmm” in exact pitch and duration, but she couldn’t restrain a giggle as she chewed.
Meredith found herself smiling back. This wasn’t so hard. Then again, why should it be? Humans did it constantly. They bred and brought them up a dozen at a time, and this one was already at a self-sufficient stage of growth, mostly.
She could get used to having an apprentice, Meredith told herself.
Then she remembered the girl wasn’t an apprentice at all. The powerful youth was her ticket to financial stability and consistent quota palm-greasing. She’d have to dispose of her—of it—when it outgrew its usefulness, so best not to get attached.
Meredith watched the slim little human as they ate, hopefully not letting any of her thoughts show. Yes, she’d have to stay vigilant at all times around this girl.
That eager smile of hers seemed downright virulent.
MEREDITH PULLED an armful of bedding from her closet and brought it to the living room. Janette sat in front of a freshly stoked fire.
“This is so nice. I’ve never sat in front of a hearth before. I could fall asleep right here.”
“That’s just what you will do.” Meredith dropped the sheets and blanket on the couch. “This is the Apprentice’s Sofa. The spare room will be yours only after you’ve earned the right to your own bedroom.”
“I understand, Mistress Meredith. Though maybe I could bed down on the floor right here? Just for tonight. I love this fire, and your rug feels very comfortable.”
“Yes, that is acceptable. You can get started now. I must go speak to the Head of the Coven immediately, to report your retrieval and arrange the, um. The official record of your apprenticeship. There are some other errands I must run, so don’t wait up for me. Stay in this room at all times and don’t touch anything, understand?”
“Actually, Mistress Meredith . . . I really need to make a trip to the loo, if you don’t mind.”
“Yes, bathroom, yes. That’s acceptable. The narrow door by the jade in the corner. You may also get water from the kitchen, but don’t leave anything out of place.”
“Thank you.” Janette took off at a thigh-squeezing skip, brushed past the leafy potted plant and closed the door behind her.
Fidgeting silence. High-pressure tinkle. Flush. Running water. The door opened a moment later.
“There’s even a sewer system! I’m so happy you didn’t point me to a latrine outside.”
“It’s a magical septic hollow, actually. The bottom is connected via space-fold to the main drain into Earth, you simply give the coordinates to the database and they activate the line from off-site every year. It’s a popular setup for suburb cottages.”
“Oh, my god, I could ask twenty questions about all that, but . . . I’m sure you’re in a hurry.”
“Yes, I must depart now, apprentice. What are the rules?”
“Don’t leave the room, don’t touch anything, go to bed.”
“Good. Rest as long as you can. There is much work for us tomorrow.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep, honestly. I’m so excited.”
Meredith walked over to the shelves and pulled out a tome as thick as her palm was wide. Complacency of the Learned, the title read. A Novel. Mifraulde Galvan was the author.
She handed it to Janette. “This will put you to sleep in no time.”
The girl accepted it with both hands and almost toppled over from the weight.
“It’s pure fiction, everything in there, nothing to do with how things actually work in Galavan. For future reference, this shelf is allowed.” She pointed at her meager collection of sanctioned Earth fiction and miscellanea, then pointed lower. “That shelf is off-limits, you may not touch it. We’ll get to some of it together, when you’re ready.”
“Yes, Mistress Meredith.”
“I’ll be on my way. Lock the door behind me, but don’t throw the latch or put on the chain, you’ll lock me out.”
“As you say, Mistress Meredith. Thank you again, Mistress. You won’t regret choosing me, I promise.”
Meredith patted the girl’s shoulder. It registered as the most awkward thing she’d done this decade. “I, ah, have every confidence you won’t disappoint me.” She walked past Janette, put up her hood, undid all the locks and swung the door open.
“Goodbye, I mean. Good night.”
“Oh! Good—um . . . where is Worf, Mistress.” Janette waved, smiling. Meredith smiled back.
She shut the door behind her and didn’t have to wait long to hear lock and deadbolt engage. Leaving the girl alone in the house struck Meredith as foolhardy at best, but she had little choice.
She traveled down the fractured tile path flanked by gnarled bushes and properly eerie tree trunks, pushed the fence open and walked into the night.
THE HEAD OF THE COVEN’S waiting room was a stone enclosure where opulence could be found in the details. The walls were mostly bare, but had been polished to a reflective sheen, as had the marble floors. The chandelier was simple and functional, but closer inspection would reveal high-artificer make and burnished Ferris metalwork. The window drapes were a plain midnight blue, but their weave was thick with the finest Valeni silk patterns.
Meredith sat on a stone bench she knew to be uncomfortable on purpose. Straight ahead was the secretary’s nightwood desk, a window to its right, a doorway to its left. Mifraulde glared from her oversize portrait on the back wall, dreadfully constipated in her sober burgundy dress and Head of the Coven regalia. The only sounds in the room were the incessant scratches of pen on paper and Meredith’s nearly-inaudible mutters.
“Another chance,” she whispered, and pursed her lips. “A last chance, more urgent. It’s the last mistake . . . no, no, don’t remind her. Please, Frau, I won’t let you down—I won’t disappoint you, yes. Use bigger words, she likes big words.”
“Are you ill?”
Meredith gave a little start and looked up. Coren had stopped writing and now stared from behind her desk, disdain clear in her dark features.
“Is there a reason why you are talking to yourself?”
Her fingers wrung the hem of her robe. “No, I . . . I’m just nervous, sorry.”
“Then be nervous quietly.”
“Yes. Right. Sorry.”
Coren returned to whatever she was doing. Meredith’s thoughts continued begging and groveling and rehearsing, molding desperation into heartfelt promises. It seemed like several days passed as she waited.
The secretary abruptly lifted her head from her writing, and one moment later a robed figure stormed out of Mifraulde’s office. The stranger’s booming voice cut in mid-sentence as soon as she crossed the threshold.
“—every word you just said! You are misguided! You will lead us to ruin, not I. Humans are nothing but babes and pests, and as soon as I get you out of the way, the world will know the rightful order of things. It’s time we come out of the shadows and claim what’s ours.”
She strode to the vertical transporter, traditional gorgon chimes rattling and jingling with every step. Once there, her sallow-skinned claw tightened to a fist.
“Open it,” she demanded without looking back. Coren glanced into Mifraulde’s office. After a tiny pause there was a buzz at the secretary’s desk, and the doors slid apart.
The witch marched inside the box and turned around to stare straight forward. Before the doors closed she had time to notice Meredith, pinch her lips and let out a contemptuous sniff. The waiting room fell into an uneasy silence as the transporter hummed on its way to the bottom.
Visitor and secretary exchanged a look. Meredith forced a smile. “Foul bog lurker, yeah?”
Coren did not find it amusing. She let out an irked breath and returned to her scribbling.
Another eternity passed before Mifraulde’s voice finally emerged from her office.
“Send her in.”
Meredith stood up and stepped forth as Frau’s secretary made a needless beckoning gesture.
“The Head of the Coven will see you now,” she said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen your desk empty, Coren. Is there any time you don’t work?”
“Do you ask so that you might avoid me in the future?”
“I work any time the Head of the Coven works. I suggest you don’t make her wait.”
“Right.” Meredith stepped away from the desk. “Thank you.”
Coren rolled her eyes and filled out a line in the schedule. Meredith stole a peek. Below 09.50: Audits (all day) and 18.41: Meeting with Selma Tarkai-Holtz-Grubber (unscheduled), the secretary wrote 18.72: Inconvenient meeting with dead weight (unscheduled).
She considered giving the snooty secretary Four-Thirteen’s rude gesture from the day previous. The mental image eased some of the tension in her chest. Meredith turned away, parted the vaporous violet curtains and crossed the tall arcade into her brood-sister’s office.
Her slippers rustled on the lush Valeni rugs as she stepped to the middle of the room. Her brood-sister looked exhausted, more so than usual this time of the year. She was surrounded by open ledgers, rolled-out parchments, black-and-red-ink treatises, all propped both on her enormous nightwood desk and several lecterns besides. The gaps in the usually crammed shelves reminded Meredith of Mistress Vera’s grin whenever she punished a student.
It would’ve felt like a prison if it weren’t for the panoramic window behind the Head of the Coven. Under the brilliant moon of early Wither, Brena cascaded downhill—orderly within the jagged old walls, cluttered in the suburbs beyond. Figures milled about Galvan Boulevard and its nocturnal market, the Crooked Garden trees cut a skeletal outline by the library, Blackened Square was a blotch in front of the Felling House and its clock tower. Several streets were still awash in eerie green lights from the Hallow’s End decorations that lingered.
Mifraulde flipped a small switch on her desk and the thick window drapes whirred closer until they were fully drawn. At the same time, the subtle thrum of aural privacy enveloped them. She continued comparing lists on separate ledgers and noting down figures for quite a while.
“Meredith,” she finally said. Her pen didn’t stop moving.
The scratching silence crept on, the sound like tiny claws eroding Meredith’s sanity.
“I saw Selma,” she began, but Mifraulde interrupted her.
“Meredith, I’d like to apologise for this morning. I was on edge from all the meetings and I unfairly took it out on you. You’re not useless. You’ve helped me with the Riven Circle and I can always count on you to listen when I need it. I’m still upset about your failure, but I was needlessly cruel. Please forgive me.”
Meredith needed a moment to parse the words. Was Mifraulde having a stroke?
She seemed fine. Fatigued. Her wavy hair was uncharacteristically frothy.
“Oh, it’s, ah . . . it’s alright, really.”
A small pause. It was a conscious effort to set aside all the pathetic groveling she’d planned.
“Is it? I know I hurt you.”
“No, it’s . . . I don’t blame you, we were both upset. You couldn’t have said anything I haven’t already told myself. I’m glad you feel this way. I’m surprised you’ve put up with me this long, ha ha, ah.”
Meredith winced and forced herself to shut her mouth. Mifraulde nodded and continued working with unsettling gravity.
“You look tired, Frau.”
“That’s because I am tired.”
“You look terrible, is what I meant.”
Weary eyes met Meredith’s gaze. The brood-sisters shared a brief smile.
“You’re one to talk,” she teased. Mifraulde let out a sigh. “I’m frustrated, Meri. I can see the system falling apart within a decade, and no-one wants to change it. No-one wants to change anything. Look at me, surrounded by paper records, doing everything by hand simply because that’s the way it’s always been. Does it look superior to you? Does it in any way look magical? Adopting human computers realm-wide won’t turn anyone into a dud.”
“I know,” Meredith said. The same two words she’d always say to Frau’s private rants.
“I wish they knew. You saw Selma stomping off, yes?”
Meredith nodded. “Yes. She’s crazy.”
“She fancies herself the next modern fury, it’s pathetic. And the worst part is that she’s not alone in her delusions. Half the Coven acts as if it’s two hundred years ago and humans are still afraid of their photographs. They have so much technology we haven’t used yet, they’re on their way to their own singularity, and yet here we are, chiding one another for naming a pet golem. But, no, of course, doing away with the span system and all the needless tradition is too high a price to pay. As if we’d be sullied, somehow. It’s all a resource, just like any other.”
Meredith nodded, sympathetic and thoughtful—her go-to when the rants became too erratic to follow. All throughout, Mifraulde’s pen stabbed and slashed at the page.
“They voted for me, well over three-fourths of them, so the least they could do now is follow my lead. It’s such an arbitrary line to draw—everyone uses human appliances, we adapted our powerlines to their voltages, and we certainly didn’t invent proper sanitation, did we? No, we’ve always fed off them one way or another, adding our touch. And the Coven resists, every time. All the talk of young blood and new ideas back then, it was just that, empty talk. Sometimes I feel they gave me the shawl and patted my head like I was a pet they’d groomed to do their bidding.”
“You’re no-one’s pet, Frau.”
“I know that, but they don’t. You’d think at least all the Brenan crones would support me, but Hedre and Yawleth and Branwen are as bad as the rest. Well, I’m going to push reform some way or another, and those that don’t like it can jump into a pit. Coren and I are fed up with all this cumbersome nonsense.”
Meredith let her sister work through her grievances. She wasn’t prone to these outbursts, but they were common enough around the Council sessions.
The Head of the Coven continued intensely scribbling in silence for some time. Finally she put down her pen and despondently pushed the ledger away.
“So.” She crossed her hands together. “Any progress at dusk?”
Meredith simply shook her head, ashamed and contrite. The less lies she spun about it, the better.
Mifraulde sighed again and reached into a drawer. She produced an official-looking sheet of paper and extended it to Meredith. It had the Council Seal already stamped at the bottom.
Bashful, she drew near and closed hesitant fingers on it. Frau didn’t let go. Meredith looked in her brood-sister’s eyes and saw both severity and regret in their wintry depths.
“This is the last time I’m waiving your responsibilities, Meri. Next year, you will fulfill your lawfully required quota of one youth viable for harvesting, or you will face the consequences. Whatever those may be.”
Meredith’s brow arched in understanding, knit with worry. “It’s Selma, isn’t it?”
Mifraulde let out an exasperated breath. “That Tarkan harpy has pecked at my heckles since we met, but all her misguided Return-to-Earth idiocy has become a credible threat, now. Undo the masquerade and go to war, can you imagine? All the delusional rhetoric lately about Earth domination is enough to churn vomit. Eugh.” She shuddered in actual disgust. “So you see, I can’t afford liabilities anymore. They look at the way I care for you, and they see weakness. This is the most I can do.”
Meredith nodded. “I understand.”
Fine eyebrows lifted in mild surprise. “You do?”
Meredith nodded again. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me. No-one else would have cared.”
Mifraulde blinked a few times. Her grave mask cracked around the eyes, at the corner of the mouth, revealing a smile that couldn’t decide whether to be affectionate or bitter. She let go of the paper, and the smile was gone.
“Well, good, then.” Her attention returned to the pages full of dreary lists and numbers. “I’ll be busy for the foreseeable future, trying to keep our world from falling apart. I’d appreciate not being disturbed.”
“Not even. . . .” Meredith needlessly lowered her voice. “About the Circle meetings?”
“No. You’re done with them. Disengage from those mercy-ridden fools as soon as you’re able without rousing suspicion. I won’t use you anymore, and they’re no menace to the realm, anyway. You know where I stand on the issue.”
“Um, alright. I’ll . . . I’ll play up Selma for you before I leave them, I’ll make sure they know she’s the one to keep from power.”
“Feel free, but it’s not necessary. I’m dealing with her already. You need to take care of yourself from now on. Don’t come calling until you’re in good standing with the Coven.”
Mifraulde didn’t look up. Meredith lingered. “Thank you for your time, Frau.”
“You’re welcome. Help yourself to a snack on the way out. You look malnourished.”
“Yes, alright.” Meredith stepped toward the exit, head down. “Farewell.”
The Head of the Coven’s response was to switch off the privacy shield and continue with her work. Meredith walked out of the room, ignored Coren’s glare at the paper she carried, and pocketed from the snack table a fistful of dried flaps she had no intention to eat. She passed the double doors by the bench and hurried toward the spiral staircase. She would’ve jumped into a pyre before asking that stuck-up wart of a secretary to unlock the vertical transporters.
The tiny service door clicked shut behind her. Meredith leaned against it while letting out a lungful of nerves.
What had just happened in there?
The ultimatum was clear. Frau was cutting her off and had no intention to associate with her again until she stopped being a failure. As Meredith carefully read the waiver in her hands, she couldn’t decide how to feel about that.
“All the better,” she muttered to herself, and realized she was panting. “I don’t think she’d approve of the new guest.”
Meredith started on her way down once her heart rate regained its normal rhythm. She had to squint a little to make out every step in the twisting stairwell.
Four hundred-odd steps and a few grandiose halls later, she left the Tower grounds, turned Tarkisward onto Galvan Boulevard and made her way downhill across the eerie glow and sparse crowds of the nocturnal market. Already the Kestrel Memorial Library peeked above storefronts and stalls, tucked around the Five Furies monument and past the Centennial Crooked Gardens.
Books had taught her most of what she knew about botany, and optimal etherfish habitats, and cottage construction and maintenance. From books she’d learned advanced mechanical tinkering, salve and toxin brewing, how to keep a pet thog happy and healthy and how to stay alive in general.
How to care for a human youth should be no different.
YURENA VALEN-FROST-MERGAT lounged behind the front counter, nose buried in a book. A usual sight. There was placid surprise in her smile when she looked up.
“Meredith?” Her sandaled feet came off the counter as she let the reclining chair smoothly lean forward. “I didn’t know you came here so late.”
Meredith’s chest tightened, just a bit. Nothing like it used to be.
“Hi, Yurena. I didn’t expect to see you here, either. I thought you kept to a diurnal schedule?”
“Council sessions,” she said, as if it explained everything. “How about you?”
“Oh, I . . . I can’t sleep, so I figured I might as well read. It’s not a habit.”
Yurena propped her bony elbows on the counter, ivory-gray eyes looking at Meredith over the rim of her glasses. A slim forefinger was sandwiched between the pages of the book in her hand. Gallia’s Burning Desire, the cover read, along with a zero-subtlety rendition of Gallia and the buxom object of her desire.
Meredith had read it already. It was pretty good.
“And what troubles your sleep, Meredith?”
She gave a tired smile while eyeing the dim, book-lined halls. “Too many things to count. There is truly no-one else here?”
“Not one wicked soul. The nocturnals get too tired at this time of the year, so I always switch with Martha. It’s nice to have the place to myself—and now you, of course. What can I get for you? You’ve more burning questions about your garden, I’m sure.”
“No, well, actually, I didn’t have anything specific in mind right now. I was wondering if I might browse for a little while?”
“Mm, I don’t know, all by yourself? Can I trust you not to bump into my precious shelves and topple the whole lot?”
“Um, no, I mean, I wouldn’t―”
“I’m joking, Meredith. I’ve seen the way you treat my books. If there’s someone I’d trust around them, that’s you.”
“Oh. Oh, well, I’m glad you feel that way. I think I’ll go to the second floor. Mind turning the lights on?”
“And ruin the magic of a night-shroud library? No, just take one of these.” Yurena slid a bookmark between the pages of her novel and bent under the counter. She pulled up a portable lamp and held it out to Meredith.
The lamp was an opaque glass orb encased in an ornate wire frame, with a stable metallic base and an overarching handle. Meredith hesitated. “Aren’t they expensive? You never hand them out.”
The librarian waved the question aside. “Hardly, they’re not even magical. I simply don’t trust most to bring them back.” She pressed the handle onto Meredith’s palm, then reached down to catch her other hand. Yurena’s cold fingers guided Meredith’s to a small knob under the frame.
“The switch is underneath,” Yurena said affably. She pressed Meredith’s fingertip against it, and with a click the orb lit up with white light—bright enough for comfortable reading, soft enough not to be a nuisance to fellow readers.
“Um. Thank you. I’d have wasted a span trying to find it, I’m sure.”
Yurena smiled broadly, showing her slightly crooked, pointier-than-usual teeth. Her fingertips lingered on Meredith’s hand. “You’d have figured it out.”
Meredith’s chest got a bit tighter. Before she could come up with an answer, the librarian let go and sat back down. “You’re all set.” She crossed one leg over the other and propped the novel on her knee. “I’ll be here if you have a question, then. Or . . . if you’d like to talk.”
“Alright, thank you. I’ll just. . . .” Meredith gestured vaguely toward the shelves.
Flustered, a bit wobbly, she headed toward the lavish set of stairs a bit faster than necessary. The brief conversation left her ill-at-ease, it had been so pleasant. Yurena had gradually shifted from dismissive to friendly in the past year, and Meredith had no idea how to handle it.
She went up the steps, very definitely not looking for any section in particular. The Kestrel Memorial Library was five stories tall. Climbing one flight of stairs to start browsing was hardly suspicious, she’d decided. Though by all appearances Yurena’s attention was once more devoted to her reading, Meredith didn’t breathe easy until she went out of sight behind the shelves. She meandered a little, her steps a quiet shuffle on the tile floors as her eyes wandered through the dimly-lit aisles.
Mostly packed shelves were arranged in a grid pattern that at regular intervals circled around cozy reading areas. The wooden shelves were ancient but well kept, the smell was necessarily musty but pine-scented, and the books ranged from flesh-bound relics to modern paperbacks. The late Victorian architecture and décor lent the whole building an air of sophistication and exclusivity that belied the horrid, outrageous, sordid and banal contents of many of the texts it housed.
Meredith raised the lamp as she strayed farther from the chandelier above the stairwell, long shadows parting just enough for her to see one shelf ahead. Her tenth-span of meandering had very casually led close to the back, well within the third of the floor devoted to non-fiction on humanity. Human Youths, read the cursive rubric between the aisles in front of her.
She went in, passing several sub-sections, her eyes scanning spines as she went:
Six Efficient Methods to Harvest the Spark.
The Viable Youth Decline: Our Dwindling Supply and How to Solve It.
Missing Children Statistics and Acceptable Thresholds.
One Hundred and Five Succulent Recipes: The Ultimate, No-Waste, No-Nonsense Way to Cook Children!
Sugar-Candy: Wunderfull Drug – Rightly Lure a Fat Tiddler to Thine Cottage.
She reached the Proper Upkeep subsection. Though every shelf in the library was routinely cleared of dust, the air here was heavy and stale. These books were old and largely obsolete, written or compiled before the time of stasis pods, entrapment orbs and streamlined harvesting; before even the exodus to Galavan. Several were in languages other than English, or in an English so archaic it might as well have been Shaglaroth’s forbidden tongue. Meredith ran a finger through the spines, muttering out loud the titles she could read.
“Indoctrination and Obedience . . . no, that won’t work. Effective Torture blah blah . . . hardly useful here. Anatomy of whatever . . . hmm. The Young Human: A Comprehensive Guide To a Healthy Youngster—oh, by Caterina Galvan? Must be an English reedition.”
She pulled the tome out of the shelf, along with a fairly modern Earthborn Witches: Truths and Myths—possibly a Doctrine text, it sported the Hexe Wardja seal—and a small What To Feed Your Pet Human booklet wedged between ominous Slavic spines. She brought them all to the reading area by the back wall and almost dropped everything when she noticed the harsh pair of eyes boring straight into her skull.
After some moderate panicking, she realized it was but a life-sized portrait. Helena Tremmel, the Marrow Banshee, Prime Surgeon, Haunt of Brattenburg and Caterina Galvan’s contemporary Fury. Her foreboding glower was particularly sinister in the half-light of the portable lamp.
Such a fitting area to hang her likeness, Meredith thought. Tremmel’s thorough research on youth anatomy had been a building block for converting the spark into storable energy.
Meredith shrugged the ancient witch out of her mind and neatly piled the books on the table by the portrait. After some consideration, she went back and fetched the large cookbook she’d passed, leaving it at arm’s reach from her seat. She placed the lamp on a comfortable spot, sat down and grabbed the book at the top of the pile: Earthborn Witches. Etched in relief under the silver lettering was a figure with a line splitting it down the middle: one half was a stylized staff-wielding witch, the other a malevolent toad-mouthed slob. She wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Meredith stifled a yawn, cracked the book open and began reading.
MYTH: Earthborn Witches Could Control their Hunger through Discipline!
TRUTH: The Hunger of Earthborn Witches is Uncontrollable until Sated.
Apostates would have you believe the Hunger could be managed in reasonable ways before the Desolation, and the thousand cautionary tales are embellishments and exaggeration. These are False arguments pushed by Dire Criminals to rewrite history and undermine Puritan Doctrine. Any such arguments should be Immediately reported to a Judicar near you.
It is Truth that every Earthborn Witch (and, indeed, every Spark’t Witch Galavan-born) was afflicted by Sparkwane upon reaching maturity, and so the Well within them dwindled until only Hunger remained. It is Truth that every Waned Witch found the need to sate their Hunger overpowering. It is Truth that even the Furies struggled with Hunger, and in fact it was Helena Tremmel herself who first formulated the theoretical principles that would become the Desolation. Our society is their vision, free at last from the Tyranny of the Flesh. Beware the deceit of the Merciful.
MYTH: An Earthborn Witch can be fully assimilated into Galavan!
TRUTH: All Earthborn Witches will eventually yearn for their homeland and turn against Us.
Apostates sponsor recruitment of Earthborn Witches as the desired path, spinning a fantasy of cognitive integration and learned loyalty to Our Realm. They will claim Earthborn Witches as sisters-in-waiting, and blatantly ignore Our History in order to attribute greed and malfeasance to the Puritan Doctrine.
It is Truth that Earth taints its spawn from Birth. It is Truth that this Infection will sully any and all efforts to assimilate an Earthborn Witch into Galavan, poisoning their every thought with considerations for their birthplace. Whatever relations were present before recruitment shall sicken their minds with Doubt and Conflict and Mercy.
Our History proves this Truth, from myriad individual incidents, to the American Crisis, to the Conveyance and beyond. In their Wisdom, the Furies shunned life on Earth, and so we embrace and perpetuate their Legacy. Beware the folly of the Merciful.
MYTH: Earthborn Witches are just like Us!
TRUTH: Earthborn Witches reek of humanity and the Stink never washes off.
The Apostate will argue upon Kinship. She will invoke Mercy and inclusion as though an Earthborn Witch is an estranged brood-sister, and not tainted by Human Filth. . . .
She gave a start and flapped shut the What to Feed booklet. Meredith quickly lined it up next to the other two, reached for the large cookbook and opened it on a random page, covering the incriminating texts as surreptitiously as she could.
“In here,” she called. “I’m here.”
She’d lost track of time. How long had it been, a span? Two span? She hadn’t planned to take so long, but there was an awful lot to learn.
The shadows brightened around the shelf straight ahead, and Yurena’s figure emerged shortly after. She walked toward Meredith with easy steps, her frame a gauntly thin Grim Reaper between the shelves, near-white irises glinting eerily in the parting darkness. She held two long glasses full of dark purple, with the portable lamp hanging from her forearm.
She neared Meredith with a smile and offered one of the glasses. “I got myself a drink and thought maybe you were thirsty.”
“Oh. Um. Yes, sure.” Meredith took it. “Thank you.”
Yurena left her lamp on the table. Her ochre librarian’s cowl was unclasped, revealing the white blouse and knee-length skirt underneath. She casually leaned against the nearest chair and sipped from her drink. “I wasn’t aware you cooked such fancy recipes.”
Meredith glanced down. Tongue and Glut with White Pheasant over Wylde Herbs.
“Ah, hah, I’m not so fond of it, but Mifraulde keeps saying I can’t cook and I’m determined to prove her wrong.”
Yurena chuckled and took another sip. Meredith did the same. Spiced hansel and grape juice, warm. Quite delicious.
“I hope she’ll provide the ingredients,” Yurena said. “That recipe costs a small fortune.”
“Oh, yes, of course. She can afford it without problems. She brought this piggy soup just yesterday. . . .” Meredith rolled her eyes. “I felt like spilling even one drop would be like wasting a year’s worth of salt.”
“It must be nice to be her.” Yurena looked at her surroundings with contentment. “I’d never want to trade places, though.”
Meredith took another sip that turned into gulps.
“I can’t blame you. I’d feel the same way.”
“You would, wouldn’t you? I’ve been meaning to talk to you about it. You asked to work here years ago, are you still interested?”
Meredith blinked. “Are you . . . is that an offer?”
“It is. I have an opening coming up. Full time, the whole ten span shift. Sleeping quarters provided, you could have your pick in the labyrinth down there. Not that you would. I know you’d never abandon your garden.”
Lips pursed and eyebrow raised, Meredith eyed the near-depleted glass in Yurena’s hand. “You didn’t spike these with ludebark, did you?”
The librarian laughed good-naturedly. “I’ve simply changed my mind, is it so hard to believe? Or, what, did you change your mind?”
No, she had not. Spend her days surrounded by books, moving them from shelf to shelf, arranging and cataloguing and lining up the spines just right? She would’ve done it for free. The half-day shifts would have been a welcome respite from her otherwise pitiful life.
Or they would’ve been, before she’d taken into her home an Earthborn witch and acquired a literal deadline to make things work.
Meredith played with the bookmark tassel dangling from the cookbook, rolling it round and round her finger. “You said it would make you look bad to have me here.”
“Yes, I . . . I apologise for that. I thought so at the time, but not anymore. I’ve seen the way you treat books. You carry them out of here as if they’re made of glass. You’ll return them without a scratch on the cover or a bend in the pages, always in a timely manner. You’ll touch the shelves like they might whisper in your ear, and don’t think I haven’t noticed you dusting off a few. Even right now, look at where you placed your cup on the table, so far from everything so you don’t risk a spill. I notice these things. I think you might be an excellent caretaker.”
Meredith couldn’t help the flustered smile. “I don’t know, you might be horrified at my copy of Non-standard Transportation. I tossed it into the bushes recently.”
She laughed again, softly. “I think we’ve all done that at some point.” She finished her drink and wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of one finger. Meredith’s eyes lingered on the gesture.
“So,” Yurena prompted, “what do you say?”
“Oh, well. . . .” She bit her lip and looked to the side. “I’m really flattered, and I wish I could, but, um, I’m tangled in a few projects right now, and the manufactory, they . . . they kind of need me? And I’ve been expanding my garden—and by the way, your order is ready, but I forgot to bring it.” Her glance touched clear gray eyes for an instant before fleeing back to the bottom shelves. “I’m afraid I’m just too busy right now to give the library the time it deserves.”
“Oh.” Yurena set her empty glass on the table. “I see.”
“I’m really sorry. I’m honestly surprised you changed your mind. No-one’s opinion of me seems to ever change for the better.”
She spoke the truth in jest, but the librarian studied Meredith’s defeated-amused expression without mirth. “It must be hard for you to be Mifraulde’s brood-sister. I don’t think you could ever live up to the Head of the Coven’s expectations, no matter who you are or how much you try.”
Meredith’s mouth quirked at the corner. Thoughts of Mifraulde’s anger clouded her vision. “Her standards aren’t as high as you might think.”
Yurena gently pushed herself off the chair and drew a tiny step closer. “What I think is that you sell yourself short.”
“That’s . . . very nice of you to say.”
“Clearly you’re dexterous with your hands or they wouldn’t have kept you at the manufactory.”
“I wouldn’t say . . . dexterous. More like adequate. And even if I were, what good is it, when I can’t distill a sound worth half a clip?”
“Well, you fixed up war-torn ruins into a cottage worthy of any witch I know, largely by yourself.”
“Yes, and you know why? Because I couldn’t afford anything else when Frau left for the Tarkan practicum, and I couldn’t even qualify for designated quarters. Nearly two decades of cobbling materials together, that’s what I’m good for.”
“You’re good for more than that. You grow the best natural leaves, roots and petals I’ve ever used.”
Meredith snorted. “Natural, exactly. Inferior in every way to infused botany. You don’t want to see my attempts at chanted growth.”
“Does infusion even matter that much? I’ve cast exactly four spells in as many years, and it’s always to engage the space-fold for retrieval. It’s not like the old times.”
“It’s different for you. This is your profession, you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone.”
“This is my profession now, and I’m fortunate. But you want to talk about stigma? I specialised in golemancy back in Devalen. The classes might as well have been held in secret, it was so frowned upon. Even now I’m wary of asking for a few golem permits to help at the library.”
“You have a specialisation? Of course you do, you’re smart. I have a barely passing grade. I spent every day on the verge of failure.”
She looked up and noticed the librarian standing much closer than she remembered. Yurena bent forward, left hand resting on the open book.
“I’ve been watching you for years,” she said. “I know better, now. Your reputation is not deserved, and I was wrong about you.”
She was close enough for her thigh to graze Meredith’s knee. “Uh. . . .”
“I enjoy talking to you, about botany, and books, and . . . what I mean is, I look forward to seeing you, I have for quite some time. Hasn’t it been obvious? I truly thought it was. Although you’re not very perceptive of these things, are you?”
“I can’t ever seem to catch you in private. It makes me wish you’d have trouble sleeping more often. Is that selfish of me?”
“N– no, I don’t think―”
“I better confess while I have this chance. I won’t ever do it, otherwise.”
“Yes. Confess.” Yurena shifted her weight and sighed. “You see, the way you handle these tomes?” She caressed the aged texture of the pages, drawing out the whisper of skin on paper. Her hand drifted closer until it rested on Meredith’s fingers. “I find it . . . very attractive. Intoxicating, even.”
Meredith’s gaze shifted from their touching hands to Yurena’s face. The librarian met her with a timid smile, as if actually afraid of how she might react.
“Yurena. . . .”
“Is this . . . are you—I mean, is this really. . . .”
She sniffed with amusement. “You look so shocked. Is it truly that horrifying?”
“What? No, it’s just, I’m not. . . .” Meredith swallowed, her throat dreadfully dry. “Me, of all people?”
“Why? What is wrong with you, exactly?”
Meredith had to look closely to make sure she wasn’t being mocked. The question seemed good-natured. “You know I’m a disaster,” she responded.
“No, you shouldn’t believe that.” Yurena placed her free hand on Meredith’s shoulder. “I don’t think you are.”
“Well, you might be the only one this side of the Froth. Mifraulde is fed up with me, she almost threw me off to the flipside today, and another failure next year will be my last. I’m a burden, don’t you see? You don’t want anything to do with me.”
Silence stretched for a few breaths. Yurena’s hands didn’t move.
“I think you should let me decide what company I want to keep.”
“Yurena, I . . . I don’t know, I don’t think I should be in a relationship right now.”
The long-legged witch got down on one knee, bright eyes piercing straight through. Her right hand moved from shoulder to neck.
“It doesn’t have to be a relationship.” She caressed Meredith’s jawline with the back of her fingers. “It could be just . . . whatever you want it to be.”
For one brief, wild moment, Meredith was convinced she was trapped in a fantasy. For years she had thought about this, almost exactly this. Maybe she never left the bedroom that morning. Maybe she was about to gasp awake in her bed.
Incidentally, Yurena was at just the right height to see the spines of the other books.
Nervous jitters surged into a jolt of panic. Meredith cupped the librarian’s hand and subtly moved their arms to the surface of the table, blocking line of sight.
“Could I, maybe, ah, think about it? I, ah, I’m so dumbstruck right now, I can’t even process—I mean, it’s so sudden, and you’re so—you’re so you, and I’m not even. . . .”
A trace of hurt flickered in Yurena’s eyes. “You don’t find me alluring?”
“Well, yes, of course. That’s part of it, you’re so alluring, I’d have never thought―”
“Then what is there to think about?” She leaned a bit closer, her breath lightly brushing Meredith’s cheeks. “Call me a spook, but I’m enthralled by your freckles.”
“Ah hah, hah, that’s just silly.”
Another bit closer. “Is it?”
The close proximity stirred a hot, vibrant tangle in Meredith’s core that had nothing to do with the fear of getting caught. She fought against it, pressing herself harder against the backrest. Getting close to anyone was the very last thing she should do in her situation.
Her answer came out as a tremulous squeak. “I don’t know, I suppose not so much?”
Yurena’s inviting smile faltered. She took a moment to look Meredith up and down. Her features crumpled in disappointment.
“You really don’t want this, do you.”
The jittering tangle spread in a flush all through Meredith’s limbs, a vigorous protest against restraint. She had wanted it, even after dismissing it as an unattainable fancy. Couldn’t this have happened two days ago?
Meredith cringed through the words: “It’s not like that, I’m simply . . . it’s been such a hard day, and I can’t even think straight at this point. It’s not about you, I’m just―”
“Of course, yes.” She drew back slightly, looking away. Her right hand left Meredith’s jaw, hovered self-consciously in the space between them, came to rest on Yurena’s own knee. “I . . . I should have known. I shouldn’t have done this, I didn’t mean to pressure you. I’m not the kind.”
Meredith worried at her lip. “I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s fine. This is my fault, I read too much into you coming here, tonight of all nights, wearing nothing but your robe. I let my thoughts get carried away, it’s not like we. . . .” Her fine eyebrows drew into a confused frown. “Are those more cookbooks?”
“What? Oh, those, yes, I skimmed through them, they’re not very good, couldn’t hold my interest. You were saying?”
“They don’t look like any cookbook I remember.”
The librarian’s tone was merely curious, as was the hand that rose to the large tome on top.
Meredith’s heart jumped to her throat. She shouldn’t have tried to hide them. She could’ve passed off her interest as curiosity, or research for retrievals, or whatever, but now it was too late, too suspect. Visions of Yurena’s mistrust flashed through her mind, events unfolding in rapid succession: narrow-eyed questions, a quiet report to the Judicars, a demand to search her house, the human girl being found, iron cuffs, a gag, being dragged through the mud and humiliated and then just screams, horrible screams in the dark depths of the holding pens.
In that moment of terror, she could think of only one way to stop it all from happening, short of murder.
Meredith leaned in and pressed her lips to Yurena’s mouth.
The librarian drew in a sharp breath. Meredith’s hand sought curious fingers and firmly entangled with them, while her other arm snuck between robe and blouse and wrapped around a narrow waist.
The half-lifted book cover returned to its previous position.
It didn’t take long for Yurena to respond with startling intensity, lips locking and caressing with avid hunger. Her hand cradled Meredith’s nape, pointy fingernails tingling on her scalp, and she felt Yurena’s tongue briefly grazing her lips, as if dying to go further but wary of being unwelcome. Sweet grape and the scent of fresh-bound pages permeated Meredith’s nostrils.
Their mouths parted with some reluctance. Yurena appeared stunned, eyes half-lidded, breath torrid. Her smile was eager and slightly crooked. “I thought you didn’t want―”
“I couldn’t resist anymore.”
“Thank the Crones. I shouldn’t say this, but I was about to be heartbroken.”
“Don’t be.” She leaned in once more. This time her kiss was slow and delicate, as if she actually cared. Almost as if. . . .
As if Meredith was someone worth kissing.
Yurena tugged on their clasped hands, mouths still sharing a breath. “I want more,” she whispered. “My bed is only two floors away.”
She succeeded in pulling Meredith to her feet. The first few steps were even eager, thoughts addled by the hint of sugar that lingered on her lips. She only remembered herself at seeing the one gap on the shelf.
“Wait, the books. I need to put them away, they’ll gather dust and could be damaged out here.”
Yurena stiffened, only to exhale a body-wide shudder. In such close proximity, Meredith could watch the pupils dilate. “What are you doing to me? You said that on purpose, didn’t you?”
She brought Meredith’s hand to her lips, kissed the fingers, lightly nipped at the knuckles. “Hurry downstairs. It’s the first door off the stairwell. I’ll get everything ready.”
She grabbed her lamp and empty glass and with quick steps she glided past, heading for the stairs. She turned in her stride for one last look full of anticipation, then broke into a skip and disappeared around the shelves. Meredith watched her go, her heart beating like it wanted to break loose from her ribcage.
She needed this new complication as much as she needed a raven pecking at her buttocks.
Meredith hastily put every tome back in their place, lining up the spines just so. The double doors at the front creaked shut as she returned the chair to its original position. She didn’t hesitate at all to grab lamp and cup and start walking. In fact, she found herself smiling as she rushed down the steps, toward the basement, toward Yurena’s quarters.
If her life was going to be complicated, she might as well enjoy it.
DROWSY, BLEARY-EYED, paste-mouthed, crazy-haired, Meredith opened her bedroom door and stepped into the living room. She shambled right up to the clock and stared, for the longest time unable to understand what it said.
Just a little past the seventh span mark. Two days in a row with hardly any sleep felt like too much for her brain to endure. Thank the Stones for having the day off. She was tempted to flop back into bed, but the soft snoring coming from the couch dissuaded her. There was too much to do, and none of it could wait.
Meredith went into the bathroom and quietly shut the door. After taking care of basic needs she started the shower, slipped out of her nightgown, clenched her teeth and shoved her head under the dreadfully cold stream. Only through sheer willpower did she hold in the multitude of ululating shrieks that fought to escape her lips.
She resisted the temptation to turn on the water heater and focused instead on wetting and lathering, wiping and scrubbing. The cold did its job, and soon she felt somewhat sapient, almost rational. Definitely clear-headed enough for the worry to make a comeback.
“What am I doing,” she whispered through the frigid water running down her face. Her mind ran through the crazy events of the previous day, from the gun in her face to her sister’s ultimatum, from a bound human awaiting discipline to the stupefying draw of Yurena’s scent. And on top of all that, the spark’t witch not-quite-snoring on her sofa.
“I should’ve just turned her in. Why didn’t I turn her in?”
Meredith pressed the ball of her palms to her eyes, rubbing until it hurt. It was too late, now. She’d already lied to Mifraulde and pocketed the waiver, and a change of mind would be outright incriminating. There was no turning back in that respect.
Not that she actually . . . wanted to.
“You know why. You’re sick of living like this. The human youth is your way out.”
She wasn’t stuck with the girl, in any case. Getting rid of her would always be an option. It’d be a terrible weight on her disease-ridden conscience, but still preferable to a single turn on a Judicar wheel.
She finished rinsing, turned off the shower and wrapped herself in her enormous towel. Still shivering, she brushed all the tangles out of her hair and pulled it into a wet ponytail, water mist sprinkling all over with every stroke.
The freckled witch in the mirror was a pitiful sight to behold. Her ears colored at the bite marks on her shoulder.
“You can do this,” she told her reflection. “Just be smart about it.”
Her reflection stared back blankly, bags under her eyes, cat-paw-print towel hugging her unremarkable frame. Among the rustic décor and earthy colors, she didn’t precisely look like the sharpest knife in the block.
Meredith sighed, cracked the door open and peeked through. Janette’s undignified pose and the volume of her breathing evidenced she was still asleep. Meredith gathered her dirty laundry and snuck back into the bedroom, water droplets tickling on their way down her calves.
The message blinking on the trans’ froze her in place. Had it been there all night? Had it just happened? It couldn’t be coincidence, this message—they were on to her, it was already over. Oh, she could already hear it, a voice in the most chilling tone imaginable: this is the Department of Mercy, we know what you’ve done, report to the Tower at once.
Her heart thumped in her temples as a shaky hand neared the Reproduce button.
“Tidings, denizen. The Department of Mercy informs you of the imminent pyre to be held at Brena’s Blackened Square tomorrow, Seventh day of Wither. One Bellina Tarkai-Holtz-Drogo shall answer for her Most Dire Crimes of forgery, stunt-minding and terminal deviance.”
Meredith exhaled her held breath. Shaking her head, she got started on her dressing routine as the rest of the announcement played out.
“Every denizen is encouraged to attend and engage in traditional jeering as befits these Most Dire Crimes. Ceremonies will begin one span before dusk. Complimentary rots will be provided, though you are welcome to bring your own. It is all of our duties to conduct a successful and orderly burning. That is all.
“Always beware deceit. Wick’t Wardja.”
Yugh. Even if she weren’t engaged in a deranged plan to get ahead, Meredith would have found some likely excuse not to attend a public pyre. They never failed to make her terribly queasy.
A tenth-span later, she came out of the bedroom wearing an all-black ensemble: long sleeve shirt, leotards and slippers under the official Coven-sanctioned black cowl. She found Janette sitting on the sofa, face scrunched up as she rubbed her eyes raw.
It was time for Meredith to put to work all that she’d learned.
“Good morn, apprentice.”
Janette smiled drowsily. “Good morning, Mistress Meredith. The sofa is very comfortable. Much better than the floor.”
Meredith blinked in mild surprise. “Slept without problems, then?”
“Better than I have in years.”
It wasn’t what Meredith had read she should expect, but it would be silly to complain about not having a “fussy youngster” scared of every shadow.
“I didn’t know what time I should be up,” Janette continued. “Your clock only has twenty hours.”
“Twenty span to a day. Ten days to a week, and thirty to a moon cycle. Twelve cycles in a year plus a hundred and five span of night for Hallow’s End.”
“Oh, Hallow’s End? Halloween?”
“Close enough, yes. Never mind that, there’s much for us to do.” She waved a hand in the bathroom’s general direction. “Perform your morning routines, and we’ll get started over breakfast. Use the smaller hairbrush and towel. They’re yours now. There are hair implements in the left drawer, pick your favourite.” A small pause. “Not the raven hair tie.”
“Yes, Mistress Meredith.”
Janette got up and shuffled into the bathroom. While the girl got ready, Meredith headed into the kitchen and brought fruit and sugar to the table. Running awful low on sugar. She left some milk to heat on the stove, went outside, walked around the house to the small attachment by the cellar doors and let Desmond loose. Soft squeals and happy grunts followed her around as she dumped a day’s worth of oats into the thog’s trough. Still good on feed.
Meredith left him to his eating and went back inside to cook breakfast. The girl walked in some time after, bright-smiled and fresh-faced. She wore black barrettes at her temples, very sober, very professional. The word adorable sprung to Meredith’s thoughts; ever vigilant, she wrapped the word in a bundle of cloth, set it on fire and tossed it down a dark pit.
The Mistress took a seat and gestured for her apprentice to do the same.
“I know you have many questions,” she said while pouring scalding-hot porridge into Janette’s bowl, “and you won’t be able to concentrate until you have some answers.”
“I would love to know more, Mistress Meredith. Thank you.”
“Yes, please. Thank you. That’s good, thank you.”
“I will tell you the history of Galavan. It’s important you know where we come from and why we do things a certain way. I need you to listen to this story and hold it to mind. After that, I’ll lay out the rules of your apprenticeship. You must never, ever break these rules. There will be dire consequences if you don’t follow them to the letter. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mistress Meredith. I’ll do my very best.”
“Stir and eat at your leisure.” She gestured at the pieces of fruit in front of her. “Have a hansel or two.”
Janette reached out and grabbed the golden-green fruit. “Thank you,” she said, inspecting the ovoid shape with curiosity, rubbing her thumb on its soft, fuzzy skin. It fit comfortably in her hand.
“Are these not common where you come from?” Meredith asked.
“I haven’t seen one before.”
“Bite in. You’ll like it. They’re my favourite.”
Janette did as told after a tiny hint of hesitation.
“Guh!” Pinkish juices from the hansel ran down her chin before she could slurp them. She cupped a hand under her mouth. “Igh sho shweet!”
“They’re in season now. I picked them only two days ago.”
Janette swallowed and wiped at her lips. “You grow these?”
“Just a small patch.” Meredith stretched over the table and placed a cloth napkin where the girl could reach it. “The soil here is very good, I can grow most everything. I’ll teach you the basics of how to tend to my garden, I won’t have as much time for it now that you’re here.”
Janette cringed. “I’m not great with plants.”
“Well, that will change, won’t it?”
“Oh, um, yes, Mistress Meredith. Of course.” She took another, more timid bite.
Satisfied, Meredith fixed her own dish with not nearly as much sugar as she’d have liked. She spoke over the soft scrapes of spoon on bowl.
“I know from my extensive experience that in the next few days you will begin missing your parents and the comforts of your old home. It is a difficult time but―”
“I won’t, Mistress.”
“Oh, you may say that now, but―”
“Forgive me, Mistress Meredith. But I won’t miss them, and I want nothing from that house. I’d burn this nighty if I had anything else to wear.”
Meredith blinked a few times. The girl’s expression was eerily intent. Even her wandering eye seemed full of conviction.
“You truly won’t miss anything?”
She looked aside, seriously considered the question. Her brow twitched, but soon enough she was looking back up, shaking her head with lips pressed together. Her frown was bold and determined.
Meredith ended up shrugging. “Well, good, then. Soon you’ll perform your first task as an apprentice and sew your robe. It sounds daunting, but don’t worry, it’s a very simple project. I will help you, of course.”
Janette’s excitement returned. “Will we weave enchantments into the fabric, Mistress?”
She couldn’t help but chuckle. “No, it’s only a robe for you to wear. Infusing objects will come later, as soon as you prove yourself capable. I haven’t even prepared a soundstill yet.”
“We’ll get to it. I’ve a story to tell―”
Desmond trotted in through the wall-flap next to the kitchen door. Janette startled. Her eyes widened in delight. “What is that?”
Meredith rolled her eyes. “Desmond, this is Janette, my apprentice. Say hello to Janette, you rude little mongrel.”
The small thog bumped Janette’s leg, grunting softly. Her grin was wide enough to take up half her face. “Can I pet him?”
“I don’t see why not, but wash your hands afterwards. Who knows where he’s been.”
The hairy little barrel snorted with good enough timing to seem indignant. Janette patted him on the head and scratched behind his ears. “Never seen one of you before,” she cooed gleefully, using both hands to properly pet him. “You’re so ugly, yes you are, you’re so, so ugly, look at you—oh, um. . . .” She looked up. “He can’t understand me, right?”
“I’m convinced he only pretends like he doesn’t.”
She giggled and returned to her cosseting. “Well, I meant cute-ugly, not ugly-ugly, right, little guy? My goodness, you slobber a lot, yes you do. . . .”
“Don’t get too attached, he’ll be food one day.”
Janette froze mid-pet. The girl’s horrified expression made Meredith snicker. “I’m joking! He’s my refuse disposal, I couldn’t do without him.” She nudged the thog away with her foot. “Off with you, now. Go sleep.”
Desmond ignored her, nudging at the girl’s hand for more attention. Meredith stomped her foot. “Off!”
The thog wabbled into the living room among grunts and little squeals. Meredith gestured toward the sink. “Just rinse. He’s very clean.”
She waited until Janette was done and back in her seat.
“As I was saying, I have a story to tell you. Are you ready?”
She nodded her usual eager nods while taking another bite of the hansel. Meredith let out a deep breath and prepared to tell the collection of carefully selected truths she’d gathered.
And a whole lot of lies as well.
THERE HAVE BEEN WITCHES and covens for most of human history, but we didn’t become a global organisation until the advent of Caterina Galvan. She had a curious upbringing, but that’s not important. She came into her powers, quickly rose through the ranks, defeated rivals, worked in the shadows, all very dramatic. What matters is that Caterina had a vision, and the special talent to make it happen. She sought kindred spirits all around Earth, witches of all creeds and ages, and over more than a hundred years she built a secret society linked through their power, with Galavan as their sanctuary. What was that?
Oh, yes, over a hundred years. Witches live longer than humans, it’s a fact. The most powerful among us can surpass three hundred, it depends on . . . well, a number of things, let’s leave it at that.
Me? Forty-seven. Um, a hundred and forty-seven, of course. Forty-seven years would hardly be long enough to rear even half the apprentices I’ve seen through, ah hah, hah.
Oh, believe me, I look my age. I’m about average, in fact. How long you wither depends on the brood, or, I mean, your genes. Like, say, the Tremmel hags? They’ll keep showing age till their seventies, most of them. Brenan crones like myself stop between our thirties and sixties, it depends on other things. You’re Earthborn, so . . . it could be anything for you. Anyway, it doesn’t matter right now. Where was I?
Right. The Coven grew in influence, but that also meant becoming more visible. In truth, we became overconfident, arrogant and careless. Far too many witnesses told tales of our magic, secrets spread and, of course, fear followed. This is probably where most of our bad reputation comes from.
These days humans ridicule the witch hunt hysteria of the time, yes? Well, it’s true a majority were innocent and harmless, but over time hundreds of real witches were found out and slaughtered. When the great witch hunt came knocking on Galavan’s doors, Caterina herself became under threat.
Yes, I should have mentioned that. This was during your sixteenth century. But you see, Caterina had prepared for it, as she always would. She’d rather have carved out her own eyes than see Galavan burn, it had been her mission for decades. The Tower was already centuries old by the time she made it her home, down at the foot of the Pyrenees. It went from remote laboratory to ever-growing academy, a sanctuary for all thaumaturges. Do you know what that word means?
Yes, that’s correct. By the time tales of Galavan spread, it had already become a fortified city with sprawl all around. The nations sent their warriors. The church sent their knights. And so Caterina’s inner circle, the furies, the founding witches of yore, they faced a choice they always knew would come: they could fight the populace in the open . . . or they could escape a world that didn’t want them.
Some wanted to fight, but Caterina knew better. She’d been counting on eventually leaving, she was prepared. They weren’t even a thousand witches, then. There would be no winning a war of attrition. Do you know that word, too?
Alright. How about you just ask whenever you don’t understand? Good.
And so they left, taking everything with them. They named it “The Conveyance,” the largest portal ever created. It wrapped Galavan in a dome, transporting the grounds to a place simple humans could never reach: a fold of space, a mirrored set of three dimensions we call “The Hollow.” So once the transfer was—
Oh, don’t worry about that, it would take days to explain the details. In very broad terms, it’s like . . . a cellar, a cellar under a rug, and the conveyance took everything through the trap door, yes? Now we are thrice anchored to Earth as it hurtles through space, intangible to the Earthbound. Maybe someday human technology will be able to detect our little pocket of reality, but I doubt it’ll happen.
So, the escape left a crater in place of a small nation, and a colossal landmass floating in the Hollow. Well, it doesn’t quite float, but . . . it’s not important. The times that followed were the most challenging of all. They built then what today we take for granted: reliable gravity all the way to the edge of the realm; a stable atmosphere with fine-tuned climate; rotations of stars, moon and sun on the skyveil; watercourses, wells and networks of pipes; the crops and the planning for today’s industry and manufacture, and so much more. The Conveyance transported hectares of land, all the room we could possibly need to develop and grow.
Um, sure, I’ve a map in the shelves, somewhere. Let’s move to the living room. How about you clean this up while I look for it?
Hm, this is a bit old, but it’ll do. We’re right here at the edge of Brena, next to the pinewood. The big circle in the middle is Galvan Tower, the centre of our government. There’s the Coren range at the top, and the Tarkis swamplands at the bottom. See all the crops along the Froth, and the nightwood farms, and the Ferris Craftworks next to Devalen? That’s what I was talking about. Centuries of development.
Oh, we make a mite of everything, whatever makes sense to produce through magical means. These days there are countless mundane items that are far more cost-effective to procure from Earth. It’s so much easier now, with all the automation and mass production on the human side. That’s where my stove comes from. The Scouting and Supply Department takes care of it all.
Sure looks like a lot of work to build all this, yes? They must’ve been so busy, there’s no way they had time to squabble and fight among themselves. Right?
No, no, it’s rhetorical. They fought all the time. Remember what I said, all creeds and ages?
Our power bound us together, but that didn’t mean we could live peacefully under the same roof, not without humanity as a common oppressor. Without them to worry about, it wasn’t so easy to look past the differences. It became a serious problem as time passed: old friendships embittered, witches went separate ways and built their own communities and so on. Segregation became a matter of necessity in barely a few decades.
Just . . . different philosophies. It wasn’t like now, with hundreds of years of communication and mingling. Back then, witches were plucked right out of Europe, and Asia, and Africa and the Americas, so the founding crones spent all their time herding cats decades after the exodus. There wasn’t even an official common tongue, not until the Stonehenge accords.
In-between all the progress there was the War of Succession, Sabrena’s Rift and the Purge of Old Yanwar, the American Crisis, the Golem Revolt, and, well, a lot of conflict. We could carry on all day. If you’re interested you can study it in your own time, after the apprenticeship is over. There’s only one thing that’s important to us right here: our Civil War, over two hundred years ago. It’s very important that you understand this part of our history.
You see, over time, for many reasons, two big philosophies came about. On one side, you have the Humanists. They understood humans were central to our long-term survival and should be treated accordingly. New apprentices, goods and commodities, manual labour, and . . . procreation, of course, it was all a symbiotic relationship, and mutual respect was necessary. We should still mingle with them, and bring the worthy into Galavan. Many of these witches had husbands, friends and families. It seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
Right. On the other side, you have the Tyrants. These witches were bitter and rotten, corrupted by power. To them, humans were livestock to be processed and discarded as they saw fit: as slaves, as fodder for experiments, even as food. Child-devouring witches, just like in your stories. They saw mercy as a blight to be purged, and anyone who would show compassion was unworthy of the Coven. Witches were the favoured daughters of the Universe, nothing but complete domination over the lesser beings would do. They even plotted an eventual return as conquerors of Earth, as silly as that sounds.
As time went on, everyone became more polarized, horrified with the other group. Tremmelton and Brena mostly for one side, Devalen and Tarkis mostly for the other, and New Yanwar right there, split down the middle. It housed the Council at the time, you see, it was the capital for a short while. It didn’t survive the war. In fact, that big circle by the bridges, Yanwar Harvest? It’s a monument. A memorial monument, so we don’t ever forget.
Tensions brewed for decades. The situation in New Yanwar became untenable, and the escalation led to the horrendous crime that sparked the war. This crime is the main reason I’m telling you all this, because I need you to understand why our rules exist.
The Head of the Coven at the time—by the way, her given name was Yanetta, believe it or not. In fact, this entire incident is known as “Yanetta’s Folly.” It’s true! It’ll help you remember.
Yanetta was a very powerful witch, but power isn’t everything, and her position was precarious. Even though she was a Humanist at heart, she constantly worked to balance the needs and demands of both groups, but it became impossible as tensions grew. Yanetta would favour the Humanists often, which progressively put her at odds with the Puritans. The– the Tyrants, I mean. There were fights in the Council, open hatred. It was a very difficult time to lead the Coven, as you might imagine.
Now, Yanetta, she had many Earthborn apprentices, her very own academy on Council grounds. She was elderly even by our standards, and in all her time she’d become nurturing of those under her care. Motherly. She was attached, too attached.
The Tyrants saw this as a dire weakness to exploit. They wanted to destroy her, and expose Humanist values for the sickness they were. In their hatred, they underestimated the consequences of their actions. What do you think they did?
Oh. That’s, uh . . . that’s close! But it was far, far worse, they didn’t just kill them, they . . . they arranged to kidnap her apprentices, every last one, because they were such easy targets—and they did gruesome things to them, terrible things to force Yanetta to do their bidding. She would’ve been broken with simple murders, but that wasn’t good enough for the Tyrant leadership, oh no. Yanetta was irrational and desperate, she complied with everything they wanted. She became a puppet, manipulated through her weakness. The Tyrants got away with anything they wanted, for a while.
Others became suspicious, and the entire plot came tumbling down, but not before Yanetta and her apprentices had suffered through unspeakable things. The Greycoats were outraged, the Judicars got involved, and it all ended in more violence that spiralled out of control. Oh, yes, each group had their own branch of law enforcement. The Greycoats were Humanists, the Judicars belonged with the Purita-a-ah I mean, the Tyrants. That was another cyst ready to burst open, because New Yanwar was policed by either one depending on which side of the Froth you landed. It was a right mess from tip to boot.
So here’s why I want you to know these things: after all the dust settled, lessons were learned, and those lessons became tradition that’s observed to this day, even if it’s not necessary anymore. Ever since Yanetta’s Folly, apprentices must always be kept in secret. No-one but their Mistress may see them, sense them or even know about them. You will be sheltered at all times until your apprenticeship is complete. Do you understand?
Another lesson: Yanetta’s attachment to her apprentices cost her everything. We cannot allow such a thing to ever happen again. I mean, obviously, no-one is out there targeting apprentices these days, but our relationship will remain strictly professional, it’s simply the way it must be. I’m friends with many of my former pupils, but that comes after, alright? You’re here to learn magic and artificing, we won’t be wasting any time with silly—
Good, yes. As long as you understand. You will always do as I say, no questions, no arguments. No complaining. No throwing fits. I will be very upset if you misbehave. Very upset. Nod your head and say, “I understand, Mistress Meredith.”
So. The Civil War broke out, and it was terrible. Thousands of witches died, and many more humans besides. So much destruction, such wasteful use of magic, it wasn’t our proudest moment. Two years of hatred and carnage in our streets.
Mm-hmm, two years indeed. When it’s neighbour against neighbour, you can’t lob a fireball the size of a building at the enemy, and nobody wanted to destroy Galavan itself . . . though the ruins of New Yanwar tell a different tale. It was all-out warfare, there.
It took a very long time to recover from all that. You could say—
Oh, yes, of course! Can you imagine, if the Tyrants had won? You and I would not be talking right now. I can picture it so well, a society full of barren witches and dreary serfs, where your worth is measured in merit alone and any form of kindness to humans is suspect. It could never work long-term, I don’t think. It’s easy to imagine oppression getting so bad, they’d have to deal with a rebellion at some point. I’d never want to live in such a place.
Fortunately, we live in this reality. Not much of note has happened since then, we’ve simply been recovering from that terrible time. We lost almost half our numbers, damage was substantial pretty much everywhere, and our magical trinkets—
You’re full of questions, aren’t you?
No, it’s alright. You’re contributing to the number, after all. Right now we’re eight thousand, five hundred and some. Far below the stable population cap, we have no shortages of anything whatsoever.
Except, well . . . so many of our invaluable trinkets and devices were destroyed or used up during the war. You see, raw incantations are complicated, and most spells require a fair deal of preparation. We understood centuries ago that artefact technology was the way to the future. They are the tools that allow Galavan to thrive, so you might say crafting these tools is about as important a job as there could be.
And that’s my job. I am an artificer. The great majority of your apprenticeship will entail the construction and infusion of magical items. It’s difficult and time-consuming work, but highly respected. And well compensated, of course. I live frugally entirely by choice, I assure you.
So there you have it, our history so far, or the abridged version of it. You can feel free to look up the details after your apprenticeship is done, but I don’t want you to waste time with it now. I forbid it. If there’s anything you truly must know, I can answer much more quickly than a dusty old tome, so don’t hesitate to ask.
Any more questions?
JANETTE WAS LOOKING UP from her cross-legged position as though tripping on a double dose of ludebark. Her hand, which up until that point had been absently playing with Desmond’s ear floof, was clenched against her chest in a heartened gesture.
“I am so happy you chose me. . . .”
“So you keep saying.”
Meredith sat on one edge of the couch. Janette had plopped down on the rug by the dead fireplace. Desmond lay on his side, back pressed against the girl’s leg. He’d zonked out fairly quickly.
“Why did the witches escape Earth at all, Mistress Meredith? They could’ve fought! They could’ve ruled the world!”
Meredith raised her eyebrows and thought of a suitably rose-tinted answer.
“Because, um . . . there are a number of reasons. The founding witches never aimed to rule over humanity, for one. It’s complicated and impractical. And Caterina was a scholar, she only cared about knowledge, so ruling would’ve gotten in the way. And our numbers are too small, and public distrust and superstition were simply insurmountable. It would’ve been such a headache.”
“But they had magic! Couldn’t they just cast a spell and force people to obey?”
“Oh, no, magic doesn’t work that way. Incantation is all about altering the physical world. No such thing as mass mind control.”
“Aw. Really? But . . . but you can throw fireballs, or make it rain lightning, right? You mentioned fireballs earlier.” She might as well have been wringing her hands together, she was so anxious about it.
“Lightning and fireballs are a definite option, yes.”
“So that’s it, then. Make people obey, or they go up in flames. If armies come, they won’t attack for long if half of them get swallowed by the ground under their feet, or choke on clouds of poison, or—or! The battlefield becomes so hot, their brains got baked inside their skulls. Why didn’t they do those things?”
Meredith looked on, a small frown on her brow. “You are more imaginative than my previous apprentices.”
Janette fidgeted. “Well, it’s just . . . it makes me so mad I grew up without magic because some angry blockheads drove the witches away a long time ago. It isn’t fair.”
“Yes, well. No sense wondering what could have been. Pay attention, now.” She straightened her back and looked at her pupil over her nose the way she’d seen Mifraulde do a thousand times. “It’s time I establish the rules of your apprenticeship. Tell me, what have you already learned from our history?”
Janette’s pouty expression was immediately replaced by serious thoughtfulness.
“Mmm . . . no-one can know about me until my apprenticeship is done.”
“Yes, that’s very important. It’s not only you that would get in trouble, I’d be severely punished for not teaching you properly. You don’t want me to be punished, do you?”
Janette quickly shook her head as if her Mistress had just offered a switching across the knuckles.
“Good. Because if you wander off from the house, anyone that sees you will immediately know what’s happening, and then we’ll both have to answer to the Judicars. They’re not known for their lenience, especially since the war. You’ll be deemed unworthy, banished back to Earth or worse, and I won’t be able to teach again for a very long time. I want this to be very clear to you. Don’t give me a reason to put you on a leash, I absolutely will.”
The girl appeared properly fearful, though soon confusion took over. “I thought the Judicars were with the Tyrants? I might have misheard.”
Meredith blinked. “Oh, yes, of course, you’re right. All this history got me turned around. The Greycloaks will make both our lives miserable if you break this rule. That’s what I meant.”
Janette nodded in solemn understanding. “I will never, ever leave without your say so, Mistress Meredith.”
“Right. That pleases me. Now, if I ever get visitors, you must hide at all times. My, ah, my spare room used to be insulated properly, but it needs some work at the moment, so . . . for now, if there’s a visitor, you will hide in Desmond’s pen.”
The girl tried not to look aghast, she truly tried. Meredith raised a placating hand. “Desmond is very clean. He might take exception at you getting your scent all over his home.”
Janette’s lips quirked in a slight purse as she looked down. “Yes, Mistress.”
“It’s only temporary, and I don’t get many visitors, but that’s irrelevant, isn’t it? You’ll do as you’re told, no complaining, no pouting. Or are you having second thoughts?”
With some alarm Janette sat upright and erased any hint of displeasure from her features. “Not at all, Mistress. You don’t need to worry.”
“Good. I’ve been taking care of your needs so far, since this is all so new for you, but that will change soon. I’ll expect you to fix our meals and do the chores while I’m not here. Teaching you will be time-consuming, so you’ll be making up for it. It’s only fair.”
“Yes, Mistress Meredith.”
“You will keep this house clean and Desmond fed. All your assignments will be kept up to date. I’ll teach you to tend the garden, sew and mend, and cook if you don’t know how. I’ll also show you several traditions that must be respected at all times. They may appear senseless to you, but there are solid reasons behind them and you must respect it all.”
“Yes, Mistress Meredith. May I ask a question?”
“Well, I expected . . . and I’m only curious, I swear, I’ll do everything as you say—but I expected enchanted brooms sweeping the floors, and dishes that wash themselves, or maybe a golem that does all the chores for you. Don’t you have those things? I mean, they exist, don’t they?”
Meredith scrambled to find an answer that wouldn’t include the words ludicrously expensive.
“There are some primitive automatons I could use,” she began, “but witches have a bit of a history with golems. I glossed over this earlier, but it wasn’t that long ago that we had a golem revolt in our hands.”
“Ooh, really? What happened?”
“Well, you see, after the Civil War there was a big push for technological advancement, and no other field progressed faster than golemancy. It wasn’t enough to have tireless labour that only needed a charge now and then for sustenance. No, the witches kept pushing at the boundaries of– of wordpath trees and miniaturization, making the golems smarter and smarter, able to understand and execute complex commands and even engage in conversation. They’d give them names, and personalities, and make them capable of basically anything a regular human―”
“Oh god, and they became too smart and rebelled against you!” Janette’s good eye had widened steadily until she could no longer hold back the interruption.
“Y– yes, sort of. It was more complicated than that, Malkin and Vanuuren had this rivalry going and . . . well, anyway. There were a lot of golems. It was messy.”
“So there was another war?”
“Not so much war, just chaos and more deaths and lots of destruction. Ever since, we keep very strict limits on the kind of automatons we use. It’s only recently that they’ve become more widespread, but still with severe restrictions, and none connected to the nodework. We learn from our mistakes, we don’t want to repeat history. Just like with the Civil War and all the rules you must follow, see?”
Janette nodded. “I understand, Mistress. No animated brooms.”
Though the girl’s expression didn’t show it, Meredith could easily sense the disappointment. She cracked a smile. “Of course, if you were to learn enough to create your very own assistant in your spare time, I could hardly find a reason to argue against its use. Golemancy overlaps quite a bit with artificing.”
Her face lit up. “I could learn to do that?”
“Well, it depends on how hard you work, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll do my best, Mistress.”
“I don’t expect―”
Someone knocked at the front door.
Only a twitch of her brow betrayed Meredith’s panic. Janette looked at the door for less than a moment before she bolted out of the room and disappeared into the kitchen. The shuffle of borrowed slippers and the familiar kah-clack of the back door’s latch shortly followed.
At least the girl was a fast learner.
She weighed her options. The windows were closed, the drapes drawn, the door bolted shut. Their voices had been quiet, surely not loud enough for the visitor to hear. Whoever stood outside would go away soon enough.
But who would come calling in the morning? No-one but Val and Taskmaster Gertrude should know she wasn’t at work. She always fulfilled what few orders she had in the evening, and for the most part she’d deliver the goods herself instead of having people come to her home.
Meredith tip-toed toward the kitchen. They could leave a message in the drop-box, whoever it was.
They knocked again, bangs hard enough to rattle the vase on the fireplace shelf.
Yes, they’d go away soon. But what if they’d actually heard the conversation, and insisted on banging on the door, and without an answer they’d go around the house and peek over the fence, and what if then maybe they fly over the fence and go snooping—
Meredith clenched her teeth and silenced her neurotic thoughts by calling out in sing-song: “I’m coming!”
The knocking stopped abruptly, as if the visitor was embarrassed to have made so much noise. Meredith undid everything but the chain and cracked the door open.
Yurena stood in a sleeveless white dress, long and fluttery in the light breeze. Her glasses were gone, possibly stowed in the small clutch purse she held in one hand. With her near-white irises, pale complexion, sharp teeth and wispy dark hair she was a spirit of the night caught in broad daylight.
“Yurena?” A flush of heat rushed to Meredith’s face as she unlatched the chain and swung the door wide enough to step under the doorjamb.
“I’m sorry for knocking like that, I thought maybe you were in the garden and couldn’t hear.”
“I . . . yeah.”
They looked at one another, then Meredith’s eyes dropped to the Valeni sigil pendant resting on Yurena’s breastbone, a tear-shaped opal surrounded by star-like studs. Yurena swayed subtly from one foot to the other. “I tried to find you at the manufactory and maybe save you a trip with the herb bundle—if, if you’d happened to take it with you, that is—but they said you were home today. So I figured I’d come here and save you that trip anyway.”
“Oh, yes, the bundle, of course, it’s right here.”
Meredith side-stepped to the little table by the door and grabbed a cloth-and-string packet marked with a large Y. “You shouldn’t have. Going to the library is never any trouble.”
“Thank you so much. These are great.” Yurena opened her purse. Shallow metallic clinks ensued as she rummaged.
Meredith pressed her lips together. She coaxed a smile. “You . . . you don’t have to pay me anymore.”
“What? Oh, no no no, that’s nonsense, I wouldn’t take advantage of . . . you know.” Yurena’s lanky fingers separated a handful of coins. “9P and 12? Unless it’s changed since the last time.”
“No, still the same.” The money exchanged hands. Meredith dropped it in a pocket without counting it. “Thank you.”
“You should charge more. You have the best I’ve ever tried, infusion or not. I mean it.”
“That’s . . . very kind of you to say.”
“It’s the truth.”
Their eyes met. Meredith looked at the skyveil, at the neighbor’s cottage down the road, at the brick trail to the outer fence. Yurena glanced at the doorknob, the side of the house, the thorned shrubs. They stood through the silence with stoic aplomb.
“I’ve always admired your frontage,” Yurena said. “Very eerie, it strikes just the right note. Those withered vines go so well with the wood rot. Is that authentic?”
Meredith looked at the carefully arranged plant husks and rot mockups. It had been terribly time-consuming to give it that “barely held together” air of neglect.
“No, it’s painted. Actual rot makes me . . . uncomfortable.”
“Oh. That’s fine.”
A bout of wind rustled through the evergreens. A frantic splitfeather called for its mate, a raven clucked back in open mockery. Yurena inhaled as if to say something, reconsidered, gave Meredith a sheepish look.
“I liked your note.”
“Note? Oh! Um. Yes. It was all true. I just forgot I’d be delivering to you today, though I guess not anymore, hah hah, ah.”
“You could stop by anyway, though. I mean, you should feel free. You don’t have to. I’m not asking. . . .” Yurena trailed off into a cringe. Finally she gave a stormy sigh. “I’m so pathetic.”
“What? No, why would you say that?”
“You’re right, I should have waited, you’d be showing up in the evening anyway. This just reeks of desperation.”
She gestured at herself. “This! Making an excuse to go find you. Dressing up. Harassing you at your home.”
“See? I’m making you uncomfortable again.”
“No, no, it’s . . . it’s very flattering.”
“Please, Meredith. You’re only humouring me, I can tell.”
“I’m being honest. You look gorgeous. As intimidating as Valen herself.”
Yurena colored at the compliment. She pinched at the skirt of her dress. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I said I wouldn’t pressure you.”
“I don’t mind, I’m happy you’re here,” Meredith said, and with some surprise she realized that it was the truth. “You’re not pressing. Pressuring. Whichever.”
Yurena took a step closer. “I don’t mean to, I simply can’t stop thinking—I . . . I just wanted to see you again. I never got the chance to say how much I enjoyed last night. I’ve never been with someone so . . . gentle.” Her hand found Meredith’s. A soft thumb lightly traveled the mounds and valleys of garden-worn knuckles. “I can’t imagine how you left without my noticing, I wake easily.”
Meredith’s lips toyed with a smile. “I don’t know, you seemed fairly spent.”
Yurena laughed. Her pointed teeth brought her grin from impish to wicked. “I was, yeah. But I’d hoped to make you breakfast.”
“I’m sorry, I just had so much to get done. I still do.”
“No, no need to apologise, I know you’re busy. You explained. That’s why I’m not parsing earnest how you’re not inviting me in.”
Meredith blushed even more. “I’m sorry, I really am. I– I’ve been working hard on becoming a real artificer. I’ve made a lot of progress, I think I can find a way to get around my infusion problems, but it needs dedicated work. I’d like to spend time with you, but . . . I truly must get back to it.”
“I understand, Meredith. Honestly. This isn’t supposed to be a relationship, anyway. Remember?”
What if I wanted it to be?
Meredith held back the words before they escaped her mouth. Their mere existence was problematic enough to leave her in stunned silence. It was too fast, too sudden, too reckless.
“It was great seeing you,” Yurena continued. “Thank you for the goods, I’ll be back for more. Good fortune with your work.” She leaned in and placed a light kiss on Meredith’s stupefied lips. “I still owe you breakfast,” she murmured with a wink.
Yurena followed the path to the fence and closed the swaying door behind her, then climbed onto the dais she’d left on the cobbled road. She pulled the controller out of her purse, waved goodbye with her fingers and took off toward inner Brena at a leisurely drift. Meredith raised a belated hand in response.
She went inside, absentmindedly locked the door, stepped around a snoring Desmond on her way to the kitchen. With pensive gait she walked all the way around the courtyard wall to the thog’s den, opened and closed the door, leaned against it. The musky scent of hay barely registered.
“Mistress Meredith? Is everything alright?”
Janette sat on a small seat made of piled bricks, with armrests and everything. Her corner of the den had been cleared of clutter and then populated with more bricks and neat mounds of hay. She seemed to have been in the process of building some kind of brick-and-hay fort.
Meredith noted the scene in a bit of daze. The words overtaking her thoughts came out in a loud mumble, as if she was unable to believe what she was saying.
“I think I might’ve fallen in love.”
A thrilled gasp filled the tiny room. Janette was sitting forward, hands balled into fists. “You did? That’s so cool! Was that him knocking? Have you known each other long? I didn’t even think witches would—but, of course, why wouldn’t you? It’s why the Tyrants lost, right? So we could fall in love. What’s his name? Is he nice?”
“She’s, uh . . . Yurena is. . . .”
The Mistress blinked for some time. All at once she realized the twenty different reasons why this was a terrible topic of conversation. In the meantime Janette’s fingers rose to parted lips, her one attentive eye wide enough to make up for the slacker. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, she’s . . . another witch, then? Or, um, are normal women allowed into Galavan? Bosh, I probably should know this by now, I feel so stupid. . . .”
“Y– yes, she’s a witch.” Meredith rubbed at her brow. “But never you mind about any of that. I was distraught. You and I cannot discuss such personal things. You remember the lesson, yes? Yanetta’s Folly.”
The girl deflated on the spot, yet did her best to keep her expression neutral. “Yes. Of course, Mistress Meredith. I apologise.”
“Don’t. It was my mistake.” She made a big show out of her deep sigh. “You see, this is also an adjustment for me. I haven’t reared an apprentice for a very long time. You could even say it feels new all over again.” She opened the door and affably gestured for the girl to go first. “So we’ll be adjusting together, I suppose.”
Janette’s smile returned, though far more bashful. “Okay,” she said while getting up from her brick throne. The oversized slippers shuffled with her every step as they followed the tile path along the wall. “Back inside the house?”
“Indeed. It’s time we honoured tradition and made you proper clothes. You’re about to learn all about sewing.”
“That’s . . . nice.” She stopped, fidgeted a bit. “Are we, um . . . are we also making undies? Is that tradition, too?”
Meredith stopped as well. She looked down at Janette, at the fluttery white nightgown she still wore, at the faint shade of silky blue around the hips. There were plenty of undergarments in her drawers, though certainly none that would fit. Perhaps with a few adjustments. . . .
“No. That’s silly.” She gently prodded to keep walking. “I’ll go out and get you plenty of underwear while you practice.”
“Oh. That’s nice. Thank you.”
She could’ve made it work, yes. Yet for some reason, it struck her as deeply unsavory to give the poor girl some hand-me-down, ill-fitting undergarments to wear.
She’d just go shopping again. There would be a lot of shopping the next day, and no-one would care about the size of her skivvies.
WRAPPED IN HER THICK RED robe, Meredith pried boards loose from the wall next to Desmond’s pen. She removed them in predetermined order, one by one, neatly piling them up on the path. Even while sluggish, her movements carried the casual precision of extensive practice.
She could barely see what she was doing, both because it was still dark and because her eyes wouldn’t open past a squint. Thoughts of burying her face in the pillow and sleeping until she ached became harder to ignore as she progressed.
Meredith stuck her whole arm into the opening, hand reaching down as it searched for the familiar leathery feel. Her fingers closed around the worn material and hauled it out of hiding.
The bottom of the bag flattened on the tiles with a jingling thud. She undid the knot tied around it, tossed the flap open, and spent a short while staring at all the money she had in the world.
Frau would laugh at her “fortune,” Meredith knew. Her brood-sister belonged to the Coven high market and didn’t care about the bottomfeeder economy. She could spend in one evening what had taken Meredith over a decade to save.
“Well, I’ll be doing just that today,” she slurred.
She set the bag aside and took the time to replace the boards as they had been. The sacks full of sawdust followed, directly in front of the stash. She almost lost her footing in her drowsy state, and decided to sit on the sacks until her head cleared a bit.
“I hope this works out,” she told the fat purse on the ground. “You were just a year away from becoming a space-fold of my own.”
The purse didn’t respond. Meredith rubbed at her eyes, pressed them shut, forced them open. The stash should be enough to buy what she needed, but no-one would sell her such sensitive equipment without a proper license. She did not qualify for a proper license.
She couldn’t let such trifling details stand in the way of advancement. She bent down and hauled the bag up to her chest, cradling it under her armpit.
She headed back inside, shambled past the girl splayed on the couch and collapsed onto the bed, bag still in hand.
PORTABLE STASIS TRAPS required larger parts and much less concentration than odor neutralizers. Meredith was thankful for it, because concentrating was a bit of a challenge today—both for lack of sleep and because she’d left an Earthborn witch alone and unsupervised inside her home. Somehow, she doubted the girl could sit through an entire day of sewing without going stir-crazy.
To fray her nerves further, it was a slow day for Val, who painstakingly brushed the glossy finish on her nearly-complete Wand of Pestilence. Words kept pouring off her lips like so much sewage off the Earth-ward pipe.
“The Duels last night were an absolute wash. I lost nearly eight peep notes thanks to that cross-eyed gorgon sweeping the whole roster—good thing I didn’t get greedy, with the odds they were hawking. Everyone knows she won’t last, she’s got the raw attunement but lacks discipline. Not that a loss means much, now. Back in my dueling days, the drain from a loss could put you out for a few cycles. That’s what made it thrilling. Now they have all these regulations and penalties, you never see anyone drop dead. I might stop going altogether.”
“At least tonight’s pyre should be good. Did you see her in the ’trans? She’ll be a big screamer, I can tell. I’ll be seeing you there, yes?”
“Oh, um. I would go, but . . . I have a previous arrangement I can’t postpone.”
“Ah!” Val’s tone become conspiratorial. “Might you mean a date?”
“A date? No, whatever gives you that idea?”
“Well, someone visited us yesterday. She appeared terribly disappointed not to find you here.”
Meredith kept her attention firmly fastened on adjusting the trinket’s underside. “Oh, yes, right. She did mention she stopped by. I had an order ready for her.”
Val snorted a quickly restrained laugh. “Those ‘natural herbs’ and salves of yours?”
Heat rose to Meredith’s face. “She just so happens to think they’re the best in town, Devalka.”
“Alright, no need to take that tone.” Val rang the buzzer by her workstation. She was frowning at the bristles of her brush, thumbing them critically. “So it’s all strictly business, then?”
Yes, Meredith almost said, but she pressed her lips together. “I won’t add fuel to your gossip machine. Not that it ever needs it.”
Val barked out a laugh. “Truer words were never spoken. You needn’t tell me anything, I can smell the attraction from two mountains removed. And the way she was dressed! She’s an odd one, just like you—and I mean that in a favourable way. I’d ask you to keep me updated, but I near glean you’d sooner pull out your own teeth.”
A stunt stood at the entryway. He was short, dark-skinned and dark-browed. Though slight of frame, the muscles in his arms stood out like ropes tight around steel rods.
He bowed deep at both witches and awaited instructions, at all times careful to keep his eyes low.
“This brush is worn out,” Devalka declared, and threw the brush at the human. He didn’t flinch when it papped against his dirty pectoral. Wood clattered on tile floor.
“None of these please me. Bring me a set so I can choose another.”
The stunt bowed again—picking up the brush while he was at it—and left the room. The clink of chains faded into the halls.
Meredith forced herself not to show any interest. Her worry crept below the surface, an intruder as persistent as it was unwelcome. Whatever might have happened to Four-Thirteen? Had the discipline been so harsh that he needed two days to recover?
Val spoke soon after the chains could no longer be heard. “Remember our friend from Thirday?”
“Hmm? What friend?”
“The stunt that usually sets up our parts. The one that botched your retrieval.”
“Oh, hah. ‘Friend,’ with quotes. I’d forgotten about that already. What about it?”
“Listen to this: they found salves and pain medicine in his holding cell.”
Meredith went still, but quickly resumed bolting the pressure plate to the appropriate contacts. “Truly? How could he possibly come by those?”
“They’re still trying to draw a line to that one. He won’t speak a word about it, apparently.”
The image of what the Judicars might be doing to make him confess flashed through Meredith’s mind in vivid detail. She did her damnedest to keep her voice casual. “That is so bizarre. You think they have some kind of supply network?”
“I don’t see how that could be possible. He must’ve had help from a witch, no doubt in my mind.”
“Huh. Could anyone be so foolish?”
Devalka snorted. “You ask as if the rebellions didn’t happen.”
“I ask because they happened. And besides, wouldn’t she get denounced in the first round of questioning? I don’t see how one of these savages could have any loyalty for one of us these days.”
“Don’t be so certain. They’re like starved mongrels. Throw them the smallest bone and they’ll be yours forever, no matter how much you beat them.”
Meredith drummed her fingers on the trinket case as if she was deeply intrigued by this mystery. “But who, though? No-one goes into the holding pens. It’s restricted and patrolled.”
“That’s right. Which is why my wager is on a sympathising juditor.”
In a small panic Meredith glanced all around to see if anyone might’ve overheard. She gripped her desk with both hands and hunched low, as if it would help conceal the words. “There is no such thing, you shouldn’t say that aloud.”
“Why? They try to pretend it’s impossible now, but it isn’t, it’s never been. Wane through Yearning they’re still witches like you and I, and if we are scrutinised for disease and affliction, then so should they. Nobody is going to forget that Faedre the Minder was one of them, no matter how much they pretend.”
Meredith squirmed in place, still darting glances around. The last thing she needed at this time was Judicar scrutiny. “Can we please stop talking about the human rebellions now?”
“Soot and ash, it’s idle conversation, what are you so afraid of? No-one is listening, nor would they care if. . . .”
Val trailed off and switched focus as chains shuffled closer. The stunt was back, small bundle in hand. After another bow, he approached Devalka’s workstation and rolled the bundle open on the one clutter-free corner of the table. The worn leather skin revealed a diverse collection of brushes arranged by size, each one neatly sleeved in its own individual pouch.
Devalka grabbed the skin, upended it and shook it until every brush was clattering on the desk. She pawed through the pile until she found one to her linking.
“Ah, yes, good. This will do. Now clean this mess and get out of my sight.”
As the human wordlessly gathered everything, Meredith didn’t grit her teeth. She didn’t roll her eyes, or raise an eyebrow, or sigh with disapproval. She was very conscious to simply tighten bolts, one after another after another.
Val resumed her work and hummed with satisfaction as she broke in the new brush. Words inevitably spilled forth shortly after.
“I often forget how young you are,” she said. “You weren’t even hatched during the rebellions, were you? You’ve no grudge. You didn’t watch Faedre’s disciples burn everything.”
Meredith glanced over, very briefly. “I was taught well enough, Val. They spare no details at the academy.”
“And yet look at you, worried about a Judicar overhearing, instead of watching for a possible traitor among them. You fear punishment more than corruption. That’s the problem with the newer broods, too much doctrine and not enough zeal, and so the cycle continues. ‘Mercy is the weeds of progress.’”
Meredith kept quiet. Relief and guilt and worry tumbled on a loop in her thoughts, steadily driving her insane. Thank the furies, she wasn’t a suspect. Did Four-Thirteen know it was her behind the mask? Could they draw a line to her regardless, if he talked? How long could Four-Thirteen hold out? How much would he suffer because of the stupid thing she’d done?
The evidence alone might do it. There were precious few artificers at the manufactory that grew all-natural gramrout. Exactly one, if she had to guess. Had Four-Thirteen simply left it all in plain sight, untouched? Had they only discovered the remnants? How long until they barged in with chains in their hands?
She tightened the last bolt until the contact cracked.
“Ogh, shrub-gobbling horsepork. . . .”
Val turned her head to look at Meredith’s station. “What happened?”
“I ruined it.”
“I tightened the plate too much and it cracked, it’s ruined.”
“It’s not so bad as that, I’m sure.”
“That’s because you’re not looking at it.”
“Fine, let me see.”
Devalka abandoned her stool and waddled to her coworker’s side. She leaned over the desk, unfastened the brace and lifted the trinket casing to eye level, turning it in her hands.
For a convenient stretch of time, her robe’s side-pocket was wide and spacious and perfectly open to wandering fingers.
“It might still be serviceable,” she declared after a while. “It will have a shortened range, I believe.”
“Gertrude won’t care, it’s still a defective casing and it’ll come off my pay.” Meredith sighed. “At least these are cheap.”
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, Gertrude doesn’t need to know.”
“What? No, I couldn’t do that. You start hiding things and it always comes back to nip your tail. I’d rather just tell her.”
Val chuckled and set the casing down. “You’re sickeningly honest, Merth. You won’t ever get anywhere with that kind of attitude.”
“I’m right where I want to be, thank you.” Eyebrows raised indignantly, Meredith gathered the unfinished trinket and made for the door. She stopped at the frame.
“Say, Val. . . .”
“This pain medicine they found, might it be uninfused gramrout?”
“I didn’t get so many details. Gertrude should know. Why?”
“Some days I come home to a mess in my garden, plants trampled and herbs missing. I thought it was some animal breaking in, but now I’m worried . . . maybe it’s a thief. Uninfused gramrout is untraceable, perfect for a sympathiser. It all makes sense.”
“A thief? It sounds more like there’s a gap in your fence.”
“There’s no gap, I’ve looked. Some thief has been using my gramrout to help these savages, and she wants me to take the blame for it. What if they suspect me now? What if they accuse me of going back there and giving out—”
Meredith’s speech was interrupted by Devalka’s laughter. It went on for entirely too long.
“You?” Val finally asked. “You sneaking into the holding pens? Past the juditors? Past the cats?” She let out an especially loud guffaw, perhaps imagining the ridiculous image her words painted.
Meredith waited for the worst of it to subside, lips drawn in a line. “Well, they might not find it so funny! Or they’ll think I’m the supplier, or a mole, or something. I can just see it already, the questions, the suspicion, the surveillance, and I did nothing wrong! What’s more, what if that dirty stunt points his finger at us out of spite? He got disciplined because of us, after all. Oh, I can just see―”
“Alright, calm down!” Devalka had her hands out in a placating gesture. “Never saw you this worked up, it’s so droll. Nothing will happen to you. They already took my statement yesterday, and between that and your reputation, you’re as safe as can be. You can let Gertrude know about your garden thief, if it makes you feel better, but you said it yourself: uninfused goods are untraceable, so of course they’d use that. And a false confession? Who in their right mind would believe an unwashed serf over the Head of the Coven’s own sister?”
Meredith looked on. Her arms were crossed over the unfinished trinket, plates flat against her chest.
“You vouched for me?”
“Of course I did. Is it so hard to believe?”
“Only two days ago you near gleaned I might be a deviant.”
“And I apologised for it, didn’t I? You’re as harmless as a baked turnip, Merth. Everyone knows that.”
A smidgen of pride surged in Meredith’s chest, intent on listing all the deranged antics she’d been up to in the last fifty span, intent on grabbing the extraneous lump in her pocket and throwing it at Devalka’s face.
The impulse was swiftly stomped flat. She gave Val a downtrodden smile.
“I suppose I should be glad I’m the town’s bottomjosh. Thank you for speaking on my behalf. Though I’m still going to report both the theft and this disaster.”
Val shrugged. “I’d hardly call that tiny crack a disaster, but it’s your decision, I suppose. I’ll be right here. Best fortune.”
Meredith nodded and stepped out of the room. Holding in her sigh of relief, she turned into the appropriate hallway and began the stair climb that would take her to Gertrude’s office.
GERTRUDE WASN’T AT HER office. Meredith found her on a catwalk above the machine floor, yelling commands at the workers below, hands like talons on the rail as she leaned over it.
“One-twelve, be more careful with those, yeah? You’re handling merchandise worth your skin a hundred times over! Wake up, Three-thirty-seven! Are you trying to get yourself disciplined? Walk faster or I’ll make sure you won’t walk again! Five-oh-nine, if I see you lean hands on that conveyor belt one more time I swear I’ll come down there and toss you into the feeder!”
The laborers milled about below, minding their business, not changing their behavior in any way Meredith could notice. She cleared her throat and patiently waited to be acknowledged.
“Neumann.” Gertrude eyed Meredith up and down. Her eyes lingered on the trinket casing. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
She had the kind of imperious voice that was permanently set to Loud. It carried none of her skin’s wrinkles.
“I made a mistake, boss.” Meredith offered the incomplete stasis trap. “I was hoping you’d assess the damage before I fill out the paperwork. It could still be profitable.”
Gertrude pulled up the teal sleeves of her taskmaster robes and gave Meredith a displeased look before snatching the item out of her hands. “What did you do?”
“I tightened screw T-3 too much. The plate cracked a hairline.”
Another displeased look. Further studying.
“The range instructions got split,” Gertrude finally declared. “This won’t be more than an ankle biter. You are aware your assignment wasn’t to produce an ankle biter, yeah?”
She tossed the casing back at Meredith. “This will come out of your pay, of course.” Her lips split in a wry smile full of highly respectable rot. “Congratulations on your purchase. Fill out the forms and drop them at my desk.”
“I understand, boss. I apologise. I was distraught by worrisome news. This is the other reason I come talk to you.”
“Is it, now. What could it possibly be? Let’s hear it.”
“Well, I learned about the stunt assigned to my station. He was found with pain relievers after he turned in for discipline, I heard.”
“Yes. What of it?”
“Well, I was only wondering, might the pain medicine be gramrout? Uninfused gramrout?”
Gertrude seemed amused by the line of inquiry. “If that were the case, why should it concern you?”
“Boss, I . . . I dabble in botany and keep an uninfused garden. I grow gramrout there. I’ve become concerned, well . . . I’m not a suspect, am I?”
“You’d be in an interrogation room, if that were the case. Why are you bothering me with this? Are you looking to become a suspect?”
“No, no, of course not, I just thought . . . so it wasn’t gramrout?”
“Yes, it was. It’s also a common weed in Liddell Park, Neumann. You don’t need a garden to procure it. Now, you have ten words to explain why you’re wasting my time with this.”
“Uh, I thought maybe I could help? With the investigation.”
The taskmaster looked at Meredith as if she’d just spoken a different language.
“You see, boss, someone’s been breaking into my garden—or well, they must have, because I found a mess of broken stems and a handful of strains missing, and they took my gramrout. I was thinking, if I could take a look at those herbs they found, I’d know if they were mine. And if they happened to be mine, then, maybe, the Judicars could keep surveillance on my cottage, and catch the thief next time she―”
Gertrude’s laughter resonated through the machine floor, loud enough to eclipse the humming and clanging. Unlike Devalka’s, there was nothing good-natured about it.
“Surveillance? Take a look at the evidence? You must’ve been made a Councilor and I didn’t hear. Is that it?”
“That must be it. Otherwise you wouldn’t presume to be entitled to such things, yeah? Maybe your brood-sister has decided to cede her position to you? Where is the signet, then? Where’s the tiara?”
“I don’t, uh. She didn’t―”
“No, I didn’t think so. That’s unfortunate, because it would’ve been interesting to have the Judicars watch your home, only to find this ‘thief’ is nothing but the ravens pecking at your worthless plants. It would have given me a bigger laugh, then.”
Meredith knit her brow in distress. The heat on her face went all the way up to the roots of her hair. “But . . . what if it is a thief? What if she steals from me again, and she tries to help those unwashed humans again? What if I’m already an unwitting accomplice? I can’t stand the thought of being part―”
Gertrude cut her off with a brusque air-chop. “I’ve heard enough. Your concerns are foolish and not worth my time, or anyone’s, for that matter. Return to your station immediately and concentrate only on the job in front of you. Understood?”
Meredith swallowed and nodded. “Yes, boss.”
“Marvelous.” The taskmaster shook her hands in a shooing gesture. “Now scram!”
Meredith complied without delay, metal walkways shaking and rattling with her every step. Soon Gertrude’s yelling was once again directed at the stunts below.
As Meredith rushed on her way down the catwalks, her lips curved in a tiny smile that quickly vanished.
SHE’D BEEN EAGER to rush home after work, but all the shopping had to come first. Between restocking the neglected pantry, making some very casual underwear-related purchases and spending her life savings, it was hardly a span till dusk by the time Meredith made it back.
She stood at the front door, juggling a hundred bags to disengage multiple locks. By this point her arms were sackfuls of sand dangling from her shoulders, but she’d never paid the fee for doorstep delivery and she wasn’t about to start today. Anyone looking on would have been understanding of her permanent grimace, even if the load wasn’t the actual reason for it. Her thoughts were full of dread at what she might find on the other side. The girl seemed tame enough, sure, but everything she’d read said youths had terrible attention spans and would destroy everything in sight when unrestrained and unsupervised.
She pushed the door open, gathered the rest of her bags and stepped in.
Nothing out of place. Not at first sight, at least. Even the bedding she’d brought out for the couch was neatly folded by the armrest.
After thoroughly locking up, she headed for the kitchen with tentative steps. “Apprentice?”
A voice murmured beyond the swinging door, but Meredith couldn’t make out the words. She pushed her way in.
Cloth and threaded needle in hand, Janette sat at a kitchen table that was a mess of cut discards, seamstress tools and practice scraps. Ear-wires ran up to her head, which gently bobbed from side to side as she sang to herself. Desmond snoozed at her feet without a care.
“I’ll be waiting, all there’s left to do is run
“You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess
“It’s a love story, baby, just say—”
The girl gasped and looked up. “Oh!”
She readily plucked out the ear-wires and stood at attention, subtly stretching limbs and back. She was already clad in the robe they’d only started the day before. Puffy eyes hinted at the fatigue behind her smile.
“Welcome home, Mistress. May I help you with those?”
Meredith stood blinking, cloth totes of groceries weighing down her shoulders. “You’ve truly been sewing all day?”
The girl seemed taken aback. “Y– you said I should, wasn’t I supposed to?”
“No, I mean, yes, of course. It’s good.”
Janette reached for the bags and took half off her mentor, leaving Meredith lopsided and herself nearly tipping over.
“Oof. Heavier than they look. Where should I take them?”
“Um. There.” She made a vague gesture toward the floor by the sink. “Over there is fine.”
The Mistress watched as the girl tried to hide her struggle with the load. Meredith took note of the painstakingly joined seams and the well-balanced cut of a robe that used to be her warm season spare blanket, thin and soft and of the dullest shade of gray. The unfinished collar was rough all around, as it was designed as a cowled robe. Janette had been working on the hood’s center seam when Meredith arrived.
Granted, a robe was a beginner’s project, but every one of those stitches had been done by hand. Her rickety treadle sewing machine had given out years ago and she’d never bothered to scavenge a replacement.
Meredith headed for the counter. “I’ll be honest,” she said while getting on her tip-toes and rolling her loaded-down shoulder so the bags would make it over the edge, “I didn’t expect you to stay focused like this. I am very pleased with you.”
It was like a furnace came alive in the girl’s cheeks. Meredith didn’t know so much delight could be packed into a flustered little smile.
“I . . . I messed up a few times, but I think I fixed it. It’s turning out okay, right?” She spread her arms, turned and twisted to showcase.
The garment was perfectly fine, but it was drab enough to pass for a discount bathrobe. There was no reason for the girl’s clothes to be terrible, on top of everything else.
“It’s a good job so far,” Meredith said. “We’ll add . . . a black satin trim, and an embroidered pattern along the hem.” She smiled with sudden inspiration. “But that’s for later, as you advance in your training. A symbol of your progress.”
“Ooh, like going up in ranks?”
“Yes, just like that. Now, I’d usually let you put all this away, but―”
There was a knock at the front door.
Janette reacted with appropriate alarm, but her Mistress laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’m expecting visitors,” she said. “Do you know what to do?”
“I will wait in Desmond’s pen, Mistress.”
If the prospect fazed her in any way, she didn’t show it this time around.
“It won’t be long.”
Janette gathered cloth, sewing kit and screen-device and headed outside. As if summoned, Desmond perked up from under the table and followed the girl through the door flap.
The knocks repeated, seven thuds spaced at perfectly measured intervals. Meredith answered without further delay, eyes scanning everywhere for incriminatory evidence more out of habit than for real concern. After the usual rattle of locks and key, the front door swung open.
“That was fast,” she told the visitors.
The pair of delivery crawlers answered with a gust of pressurized air as they settled on their multiple legs. Meredith eyed them with both interest and disappointment. Though she’d never before spent the kind of money that would warrant this kind of service to her door, these units were egregiously outdated, possibly going back to pre-rebellions times. Anti-gravity motivators were the standard in golem design, nowadays.
Using what must’ve been cutting edge sanctioned technology back then, they’d crammed over twenty legs per side on these models. Lines of pale blue glowed all over their limbs and broad torsos, constantly shifting and humming in accordance to their automation protocols. The cargo was low to the ground, strapped to the flatbeds on their backs, protected by a green-tinted repulsion dome that arched over it in a translucent shell. Both creatures had the well-worn, frayed feel of endless maintenance cycles.
The front crawler extended its three-fingered hand and offered a clipboard for Meredith to read.
On the right-hand side of the creature’s chest, where leathery pectoral became plated shoulder, there was a green button the size of a piggy coin. COMM was printed above it.
Meredith pressed it.
There was a brief tone and then the characteristic buzz of skyveil nodework connection. It was only a small wait until a chirpy voice emerged from the crawler’s shoulder.
“Thank you for choosing Tremmel’s Treasures! Is this . . . ” papers shuffling, “Devalka Stohlz—oh, Val? Is this you?”
Meredith swallowed. This was not the same witch she’d dealt with at the emporium. That one had checked Devalka’s license without even looking at it.
“S– speaking, yes.” She reined in the panic and lowered her pitch, constrained her throat. “It’s been quite some time. Hasn’t it?”
“Soot and ash, your voice is so different through this thing. Perhaps Damra is right and an upgrade is well overdue.”
“Damra, yes. I spoke to her earlier.”
“I hope that rattleskull treated you properly. You should have come find me, I would have made you a better deal. I didn’t even know you’d moved!”
“Oh, I, um. I didn’t want to bother you.”
“That’s such nonsense! You’re my favourite to haggle with, you know that. And this soundstill you purchased, a Blackwell? Whatever happened to your Galvanicat model? This is such a step down. I’d have never let you walk out with this one.”
“Yes, I know, I―”
“Ogh, I’m so disappointed, how could you let me miss you like this?”
“I, uh. I was avoiding you, in fact.”
There was a brief pause. “You were?”
Meredith cringed through the words. “I haven’t moved. This is . . . it’s a gift. For my new lover.”
“Oh.” Another beat. “That’s . . . fine? I don’t see―”
“You don’t understand. I am very self-conscious about her, and I knew you’d ask about the address. I didn’t want to talk about her. That’s why.”
Meredith could imagine What’s-Her-Name sitting there, transceiver in hand, trying to figure out how to react. How out of character was this for Devalka?
She plowed ahead anyway.
“I need you to be discreet about this. I would appreciate it if you never bring it up. Ever. Having this conversation is mortifying enough.”
“But– but of course! Of course. We have a good relationship, I wouldn’t jeopardise it.”
“I know I’m a mite of a gossip. I can see how it’s hypocritical of me to ask, but I implore you all the same, don’t breathe a word about it. You understand, don’t you?”
“Val, say no more. I thank you for your trust, and this conversation never happened. Shall we get on with it, then?”
Meredith suppressed the relieved sigh. “Yes, absolutely. I need to set this up before she arrives. I’m quite tired, do walk me through it.”
“Well then, before we proceed, you were provided with a random password for identification. You wouldn’t want some other witch accepting this shipment, would you? Say the password now.”
Meredith cleared her throat. “Bolegda.”
“Good, correct.” The repulsion fields dissipated. “Well now, do you want the goods to be brought indoors?”
“Marvelous, please verify everything can fit through the door before we proceed.”
Meredith glanced back and forth a few times. “I think they can.”
“You think so? Please make sure. You know how it is, we won’t be responsible for any damage caused to your—to the living space.”
“Yes, I’m sure, yes.”
“Good, well then, command them to follow and show them where you’d like your goods delivered. It will help if you clear a wide path beforehand. Proceed when ready.”
“Alright, hold on. . . .”
Meredith walked over to the Apprentice’s Sofa and shoved it toward the hearth. After some consideration, she also rolled the rug and pushed it aside. Who knew where those hundred feet had been.
She cleared her throat again. “Alright. Follow.”
The crawlers came alive as one, engaging their legs to mimic the smooth advance of a centipede. The cargo slid through the doorjamb undisturbed, thin limbs flowing around the frame like supple tendrils.
Meredith stopped in front of the door to the spare room. “Here is fine.”
The speaker crackled. “Well then, tap first whichever crawler you see fit, then point to the floor clearly and say ‘drop here.’ Once the operation is complete, do the same with the other one.”
“Tap. Of course.”
After a moment of hesitation, she gave the nearest golem an uncertain tap to the shoulder and pointed at the area in front of the door. “Drop here.”
The tapped crawler, the one that carried a large bulk of laminated foam-like material, turned around and backed to the desired spot. Its legs began retracting into its body, parts and gears and tendons clicking and whirring until the load was lowered to ground level, at which point its arms bent backward and pushed the detachable tray off the flatbed. The lip of the tray made contact with the floorboards with a faint clack.
The second crawler went through the same process, unloading a tray full of disparate parcels and bundles. The transceiver crackled again once the creatures had assumed their previous at-ease position.
“Inspect your merchandise carefully. Has delivery been completed to your satisfaction?”
“Yes, um. Yes, everything’s here. I am pleased.”
“Well then, go ahead and sign your name on the clipboard, down by the X. There should be a pen?”
The pen point hovered over the line for a while before making contact. How familiar would What’s-Her-Name be with Devalka’s signature?
With luck, not familiar enough to tell it apart from a forgery.
It turned out indistinguishable from the real thing, to Meredith’s eye. She’d practiced it long enough.
“Alright, so, let us know if there is anything missing. We’ll collect the trays tomorrow at the usual time. If no-one will be home, make sure they’re in an accessible location. I gather you are assembling this yourself? We provide assembly for an extra, very affordable fee, you know.”
“No need. The trays will be outside, don’t worry.”
“Come now, are you sure? The price’s hardly a scoop off the Froth for you, Val. I’d take care of it personally.”
Meredith forced out a boisterous laugh, far louder than was warranted. “Ever the haggler, you are. Find yourself an easier target.”
What’s-Her-Name laughed in turn. “I had to try. See my guys out, if you don’t mind. I would be appalled if they damaged something of yours.”
“The marker should be outside. We’ll gate in to retrieve them.”
Meredith guided the crawlers as she had done before, all the way to the fence door—or rather, what used to be a door. Judging by the mess of broken boards and splinters, they’d plowed straight through on the way in.
“Ah. . . .”
“Is something the matter?”
“No. No, everything’s fine.” She stepped over the former fence and guided the brutes to the silver token on the side of the road. “They’re in position now. Thank you for your help. And your discretion.”
“I always look forward to dealing with you, Val. If there’s something else I can get for you. . . .”
“Actually, yes, there is something you can do.”
“I agree with Damra, you ought to get these relics upgraded. You sound like you’re at the bottom of a pit.”
What’s-Her-Name laughed again. “I’ll take that into consideration. You’re always welcome at Tremmel’s Treasures. Ta!”
Meredith ran back inside before the portal opened, just in case the witch was standing right there in direct sight. There would be no flushing lights to obscure the view on an intra-Galavan gate. From behind the safety of her window blinds she watched as the rectangle to a well-lit warehouse popped into being and let the transports drum through.
The portal vanished, and the release of pent up breath became an involuntary moan. She swallowed past the hoarseness and massaged her throat. Why did everything have to be so hard all the time?
Her eyes lingered on the mangled fence. The door had been pulled off its hinges and crushed, reducing the whole section to a misshapen jumble. At least she had plenty of spare materials to make repairs.
She shook her head. “One thing at a time.”
Meredith worked the entrance locks, walked past her purchases and selected a different key from her keyring. The door between bedroom and bathroom creaked open to reveal an L-shaped space lined with rudimentary shelves and bare wooden walls. The smell immediately permeated her nostrils: leather, bound pages old and new, dried spices, miscellaneous reagents. She strode around the bend, leaned over the busted sewing machine, unbarred the window and opened it. The heavy musk wouldn’t be a problem once the room aired out.
Under the dim window light she surveyed the small area, mentally noting what needed to be pushed where. Plenty of space, if she got a little creative. She could always move the least incriminating shelves to the kitchen, things like books and preserves, while the more sensitive “merchandise”—the shinies, the assorted curios, the pilfered artifacts—could join the rest in the cellar. Her paranoia would rest just as easy knowing they were locked away down there, even if it would mean not walking among them as often.
Satisfied with her planning, Meredith made the small trek to Desmond’s pen. Janette sat under the little window, diligently sewing under the pre-dusk light while listening to her soundmaker. Bricks had been moved from her abandoned fort-in-progress to accommodate her tush.
She looked up, plucked the one ear-wire and quietly smiled, the very image of dedication.
“It’s all taken care of,” Meredith said. “What are you plugging into your head, anyway?”
“This? I– I figured it was okay, you left it on the counter, so I thought I’d listen until it dies. Is it okay? I should have asked first.”
Meredith spent a moment thinking about it. Was it okay?
“I don’t see why not,” she answered. “It helps you adjust, yes?”
“Oh, y– yeah, I suppose it does. That’s a relief, I’m glad. Thank you.” She considered the bud between her fingertips, then looked at her mentor. “Would you like to listen?”
Meredith recoiled as if she’d just been offered a puff of rolled noxbloom. Human music had been declared a mercy snare some hundred years ago, to be disdained and avoided by all. “Too endearing,” judged the edict.
It was easy enough to acquire in clandestine markets, though. She’d always wondered, more so ever since Devalka had let slip her guilty appreciation for “The Beetuls,” whatever that was. Accidental exposure was commonplace for travelers, she’d never heard of anyone being punished for it.
Curious fingertips grazed the nub. “Um, is it clean?”
“The earbud? Yeah, I think so. Well, let me. . . .” The girl used a fold of her robe to polish the rubber before offering again. Meredith took it, examined it closely, hesitantly brought it to her ear.
“This one is my favourite,” Janette said while tapping the screen. “Dana and Bridget made fun of me, they said she’s so last year, but I don’t care. Her voice is so pretty.”
Instruments she didn’t recognize started playing. A voice joined them. Janette scooted to make room on her improvised brick bench and Meredith sat without thinking about it. For the next five centispan she listened to a terribly confusing little story about a young human princess—apparently they still had those?—trying to convince “Romeo” to stay by her side and do her bidding. In the end she seemed to succeed, bringing the boy to his knees and attaining proper offerings worthy of her station. It was all told at a peppy cadence, in pretty melodies and pleasant rhymes.
When the voice faded, Janette was looking up expectantly. Mentor and apprentice sat side-by-side, white cords dangling between them.
“I don’t understand,” Meredith said. “She says it’s a love story, but there’s no mention of sex at any point. I suppose it’s implied? Is that what ‘throwing pebbles’ stands for?”
For some reason Janette’s cheeks flushed a bright red before responding. “I . . . don’t know, it could be? It– it’s meant to be romantic.”
“I see,” she said without seeing at all. “Do you have more?”
Immediately the girl became bouncy with enthusiasm. “Yes, I have lots more! I downloaded all her albums and a lot of other stuff, you can listen to anything you like. Well, until the battery dies, at least.”
Meredith looked at the device. She didn’t know the first thing about it, but she was almost certain it ran on the same electricity on offer through her outlets. It should be fairly straightforward to find the appropriate transformer at Dreya’s. Not that another trip through those shady side streets and alleys was particularly enticing.
“Don’t worry about it.” She gave the earbud back. “I believe I can work out a way―”
A gurgling sound rose inside the small enclosure. It came from Janette’s midsection.
Witch and apprentice looked down at the same time.
“Haven’t you eaten?”
“Um. No, Mistress. I thought maybe I was supposed to wait for you? And, well, you said witches must be frugal, so I thought I better don’t eat anything.”
Meredith got an altogether unpleasant feeling at the bottom of her chest. It reminded her of the time she’d forgotten to let Desmond out for a whole day.
“I’m glad you’re so dedicated,” she said, “but you don’t need to go hungry. Feel free to snack in moderation until dinnertime. Anything in the kitchen, and I’ll even show you what’s good for picking in the garden.”
“Oh. Well, I’m not that hungry anyway. Don’t feel bad.”
Her stomach rumbled loud and long enough to be a full participant in the conversation.
“Um.” The girl looked to the side. “It’s just gas, honest.”
Meredith snorted a chuckle. “Let’s go put everything away and make dinner. After that, we’re going to work on your room.”
“Oh! Really? Already?”
“You won’t be using it yet. But it won’t be long until you do, if you apply yourself.”
Janette nodded, very serious, very eager.
“Come,” the Mistress said, and held the door open for her apprentice. “I’ve much to teach you.”
JANETTE HELD TO HER FACE a strange contraption loosely shaped as a spiraling shell. It was the size of a large bread bun and partly translucent, catching and refracting the lamplights in myriad different ways.
“This is so cool. . . .”
“Be careful with it. There are very fine paths carved inside. You’ll risk distorting them if you drop it.”
The witch’s apprentice reverently laid the instrument on its shipping cushion.
“That’s the coil,” Meredith continued. “It’s the heart of the soundstill. It will process your infused words and imbue the intermedium with their conceptual essence. Then the intermedium is bound to the actual wordpaths in the trinket you’re crafting, and to the trigger mechanism.”
“This sounds so complicated.”
Janette said it as if it was the most exciting notion she’d contemplated in a long while.
“Not too complicated, I hope, because it’s you that’s putting it together.”
“Me?” Her voice climbed from excited to ecstatic. “Really?”
“Not any time soon, you need to know the theory first, and study the manual from start to finish. But all my apprentices go through this. It’s very important that you gain intimate knowledge of how the sound distillery works. Because, clearly, everything you do here will help you in the future, when you become an independent artificer.”
“I won’t disappoint you, Mistress.”
“I’ll supervise everything, of course. I have extensive experience with soundstills, as you might expect. This one is fairly simple, but it’s dangerous to get it wrong all the same.”
“Could I maybe see the one you use, Mistress Meredith? I’d love to study an assembled one. This looks like an amazing machine . . . device-thing.”
“The proper word is ‘contraption,’ and mine is, um—mine is at my workplace, in the lab. I work with several other witches, and you know the rules, I can’t take you there.” Meredith patted the girl’s shoulder. Slightly less awkward, getting better. “But I will, once your apprenticeship is over.”
“Aw. That’s okay, I guess.”
“Today,” Meredith said, and gestured toward the large tray full of hard foamy sheets, “we’ll work on insulating your room.”
“Oh, it’s cold in there? I don’t mind the cold, truly. I could move in as-is.”
“No, no.” An involuntary groan escaped her as she pushed herself off the floor. “Magical insulation. Both to keep your presence hidden and to contain any terrible disaster we might brew in there.”
Janette giggled, then noticed her mentor hadn’t laughed. “Is it . . . is it that dangerous?”
“It could be. Let’s get started. First, we have to make room. Follow me.”
Mistress and apprentice spent the next half-span moving shelves and furniture, some to the center of the room, some to the kitchen so they could be later stowed in the cellar.
“These look so interesting,” Janette had commented some time half-way. “What are they?”
Meredith had given the case littered with miscellaneous trinkets a final push to line it up with the others. “They are the product of an artificer’s labour,” she’d said, “and you’ll have your own collection soon enough, if all goes well.”
Janette had worked with even more enthusiasm after that. Once they’d moved every shelf, desk and container out of the way, one by one they unwrapped and arranged the foamy sheets marked with a W. The panels came up to Meredith’s waist and were a fair bit heavier than she’d expected. Each one was carved with the same pattern of off-center spokes and jittery spirals she’d seen a thousand times over, engraved in every coin, watermarked in every note of currency.
“We’ll start with the walls today,” she explained. “Floor and ceiling tomorrow. Go fetch my ladder, will you? I’m sure you’ve seen it outside.”
“Yes, right away.”
Janette scampered off, and Meredith used the time to line up the sheets by the walls: two tall and one short to each pile, plus special ones for the corners. Getting them cut to fit the room’s nonstandard shape had incurred a painful additional fee.
“Maybe I should’ve set her up in Desmond’s pen after all,” she muttered, already winded.
The clatter of wood on wood traveled from kitchen to doorframe. “Leave it right there for now,” Meredith called without looking. Janette walked in after a final, careful thud.
“This seems like so much work. Do you need to do this every time you take a new apprentice?”
“I, uh . . . like I said, it’s been quite some time since my last. So long, in fact, that I repurposed this room. Truth be told, I’d decided not to take on any more apprentices. But I changed my mind, clearly.”
“Oh.” Janette helped organize the rest of the panels, carrying them wherever the Mistress pointed. “Why not? Take any more apprentices, that is. I don’t mean to pry.”
“It’s just . . . a complicated endeavour. Each one has been different, and it isn’t always pleasant.” Meredith chuckled as if remembering a particularly dismaying instance. “If you knew of even half of them, you wouldn’t have asked.”
The young apprentice winced like she’d just swallowed a bug. “I couldn’t imagine anyone not being grateful for this opportunity, Mistress.”
Another chuckle. “Why, I could point you to written accounts of young girls misbehaving so badly, they had to be boiled alive.”
Janette almost let the last panel drop. “Witches do such things?”
“Oh, um, they used to, in olden times. It’s not done anymore, of course.”
The girl seemed to breathe easier. She let out a tiny snicker. “That’s too bad. I knew some that would’ve deserved it.”
“Is that so? Criminals of some sort?”
“No, just . . . mean girls. Stupid girls with nothing better to do than—well, you know.” Janette shrugged. “They don’t matter anymore. Should I go fetch some tools, Mistress? I meant to ask earlier.”
It took Meredith a moment to react to the question. “No, that won’t be necessary with these. Come over here.” Meredith singled out one of the L-shaped panels and held it flush against a corner. Janette hurried to her side. “Now place your hands below mine and push. Like that, yes. As hard as you can.”
The girl leaned into the piece and Meredith let go. “Now watch this.”
Her fingers searched the top-left corner of the panel. There they found a small depression, a button just big enough for her thumb to press. She pushed it several times in a rapid succession of loud clicks, just like the instruction leaflet depicted.
The panel lit up with a barely audible whisper, a glowing string of symbols running its borders. Janette gawked, left eye open wide, right eye almost there. Then she gasped. “It’s getting hot!”
“Don’t worry. Keep pushing.”
White light poured from the surfaces in contact and flooded the adjacent walls. The smell of seared timber wafted into their nostrils, mixed with a nose-tingling, chalky odor. The whisper grew a bit louder before stopping. The light faded shortly after.
“You can let go now.”
Tentatively Janette stopped applying pressure, shooting glances at the line of contact between panel and wall. Wood planks and foamy material had fused together.
“The symbols,” she murmured in awe. “They’re gone now?”
“These aren’t recyclable. Cheaper that way, no need to coil the words onto quality intermedium or carve the wordpaths beforehand.”
“They were so cool, like Tolkien runes all smushed together! What did they say? Was it something about temperature? And something else, I don’t know the word for it. Like . . . gather things up?”
Meredith’s slightly smug expression dropped into stunned silence. Janette couldn’t see it, as she was still facing the fused panel.
“Meld,” was the belated reply.
“Yes, that’s it! I wish I could’ve watched it for longer, I could hardly get a good look. Can we move on to the next? I want to see it again.” She turned and noticed her mentor’s grave expression. “Um . . . did I do something wrong, Mistress?”
Meredith blinked. Her mouth still hung open. “You read those?”
“Ah, well, not really? I just—I felt like I knew what they meant, if that makes any sense.” She fidgeted in place. “I– I’m probably wrong. I’m sorry, Mistress.”
“It takes entire moon cycles of study to grasp even the basics, but you just understood the conceptual sigils for temperature. You’re not guessing, are you?”
“No, I—well, I don’t think so, I just. . . .” The girl’s hands wrung one sleeve of her robe.
“You’re not in trouble, Janette. Just say the truth.”
She licked her lips. “I saw the symbols, and I got this . . . feeling. Like I understood what they were about. The essence of them.”
Meredith nodded slowly. She picked up the next panel and pressed it to the wall. “Watch closely, now.”
The apprentice stared at the borders of the rectangular sheet. Her mentor activated the mechanism. Both watched intently as the commands lit up, executed and burnt out.
The girl glanced at Meredith. Her concentrated frown conveyed a fair amount of frustration.
“Raise temperature to some material’s melting point? Something I can’t understand, and then . . . ‘meld,’ as in– as in fusing something together.” Janette only half-met her eyes, like a student guessing the answers to an oral test.
“Well, burn my robes and tar my ankles.”
Meredith had to smile. Continued exposure had rendered the girl’s latent power an ignorable buzz, like an ever-present white noise blending with the background. But it was still there, as always, thrumming with the beat of reality. Possibly the girl’s attunement was on par with that of Caterina Galvan herself.
“Yes. Yes, that’s correct, for the most part.” She was shaking her head in giddy disbelief. Was this the Universe itself, finally giving her a break? “Do you know what this means? You’re so in tune with magic, this will shave so much time off my plan—I mean, the plans I had for your education, of course. I thought it would be several cycles before we got to artificing, but now. . . .”
Janette was starry-eyed by then. “Really? How soon?”
“Well, provided you grasp the basics and infusion doesn’t give you trouble? You might cast your first spell within this moon cycle.”
The girl had balled her fists with excitement, jumping in place. “Ooh, that’s marvellous! I won’t disappoint you, I swear it!”
“You’ve been telling me as much, and I’m inclined to believe you.” Meredith gestured at the rows of unattached panels. “But of course, there’s much to do before then. The faster we get this out of the way, the sooner we can work on real magic.”
Janette quickly dragged the next panel within Meredith’s reach. Both of her eyes glimmered with undisguised hunger.
“I can’t wait.”
MEREDITH SHUT THE BEDROOM door behind her at last. She tossed on the bed the wrist-thick tome she was carrying, disrobed, put on fresh underwear, donned her nightgown, undid her ponytail and brushed her hair. The weary stranger in the mirror fought to keep her eyelids from drooping throughout the routine.
She hadn’t spent any time on the garden today. There were two orders pending, the curlstalks needed pruning badly and the taters were already overdue for harvest. Her hands itched for every gardening tool on the shelves whenever she caught sight of the dead husks and shriveled bushes.
None of it would get done any time soon, at this rate. The Circle meeting was happening next midnight, and they’d surely found out about the Four-Thirteen issue. What would Eleven say? Would they toss her out? The worry would help keep her awake, at least.
Maybe she’d postpone work on the home lab for a few days. Teach her “apprentice” some botany, and more recipes, and make sure all the chores were done just the way she liked them. Certainly spend more time in the kitchen—that might have been the worst tater omelet-become-mush she’d ever put in her mouth.
Janette had been so mortified. That girl sure was hard on herself. It had been a challenge to convince her it truly was alright to waste a few eggs.
It took several more brush strokes for Meredith to notice the fond smile that had snuck onto her lips. The smile vanished like a phantom caught in daylight.
Yes, she’d cover the basics now, instead of jumping right away into complicated, life-altering subjects. At the very least, it would give the all-knowing Mistress some time to study.
Setting down the brush, Meredith sighed a deep, deep sigh that morphed into a yawn. She shook her head in a vain attempt to clear it, lay face-down on top of the blankets and cracked open the manual for the soundstill.
THE MANUFACTORY RESTROOMS were deserted early in the morning. It didn’t stop Meredith from checking all four stalls for accidental witnesses before stepping into Devalka’s Preferred Toilet.
Later, when Val huffed past her work station a whole fourth-span after seven, Meredith didn’t ask what was wrong. Later still, when Val volunteered it all on her own, Meredith didn’t offer to help. And after that, when Val enlisted her anyway to quietly scour every corner of the manufactory she’d visited the day previous—and, by the twice-charred corpse of Mergat, she better not tell anyone what they were looking for—not once did Meredith suggest to maybe look in the restroom.
They genuinely found it nearly a span into the search, while Meredith busied herself pretending to dig through the waste bin. She good-naturedly chided Devalka to maybe stow her wallet in her artificer lounge locker from that point forward, because at least then it would not get soiled on a bathroom floor all night.
Val was not amused. More importantly, at no point did Val express even a hint of suspicion.
And why would she? Meredith was as harmless as a baked turnip.
HE CEMETERY HIDEOUT was a cellar beneath the abandoned undertaker shack, and the walk there involved sneaking through tortuous paths by unkempt graves and looming stone mausoleums. The old cemetery was a bit of a tourist attraction in Brena, purposefully preserved in a state of vine overgrowth and bone-chilling neglect. A thousand dead stories thrummed in the stoneflesh, whispered in the rustle of dead leaves.
Meredith found it the most upsetting in the rotation by far, especially in the overcast darkness after dayturn. Eithday had just turned to Nynday, and so the dark clouds overhead had become a drizzle bound to drench every corner of Brena.
She carefully descended the ramshackle staircase, one gloved hand fast on the rust-eaten rail. Soot-encrusted pipes ran alongside her, now obsolete and dormant for decades after centuries of non-stop use, and as she advanced her shoulder bumped against a protruding valve as large as her head. Double wooden doors waited ahead, embedded at a slant on the wall and clearly leading further down. Meredith knocked in three sets of three.
A few moments passed, as usual. All other attendees would come in through the space-fold entryway set up inside. No-one bothered to stay posted by the door at all times for the one indigent that made the trip there on foot.
A small panel swung open at brow height, revealing soft light behind a metallic mesh.
“The night is calm,” Meredith said, vocalizing clearly to compensate for the mask, “but the winds are changing.”
“What? I didn’t understand any of that.”
Oh, bother. Thirty-Seven again. She cleared her throat and spoke the words louder, for all the good it would do.
“Alright,” Thirty-Seven responded. “Who are you, anyway?”
“You know I’m Brena Sixty-Two. It’s raining, please open the door.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You should leave, stranger.”
“Must we go through this every time?”
“Only when you’re late. So, yes, every time.”
“It’s not my fault, it’s a labyrinth out here!”
“You got lost again?”
“You try to find your way in this horrible place when it’s dark, it’s not easy!”
“I don’t have to. That’s the entire purpose of the mockery, I thought it was clear.”
“Can you please open the door?”
The padlock rattled, the bar clattered, the hinges complained in a sinister croak, and Meredith stepped back so the doors could swing all the way. A toothy Thirty-Seven smirked under her cowl, all other features obscured in the faint penumbra.
“Come in,” she said. “Try not to make much noise, you cack-hand.”
It wasn’t Meredith’s fault either that the mask and hood obscured her field of vision, making her constantly bump into things. She followed Brena Thirty-Seven as she heavily stomped down the steps, toward quiet voices and discreet glowstones. The meeting was underway, though it didn’t seem to be far along.
“ . . . Transport went as planned,” Eleven was saying, “no incidents, not a whiff of chatter. It would’ve been quiet this week, if not for the manufactory issue.”
“What issue?” someone asked, her voice tinny through concealment.
“One among us,” Eleven responded as Meredith entered the room, “she felt compelled to venture into the cell blocks and provide one of the humans with supplies. Needless to say, the supplies were discovered. Our . . . unwise sister, who shouldn’t even be present, may become compromised as a result.”
Meredith tried to look perfectly innocent as she got to her seat. She lifted the fold-up chair before moving it so it wouldn’t make noise, but every witch turned to look at her anyway, each one of them a faceless cowl in the faint glowstone light. Brena Eleven was on her feet at the head of the table, tall enough to tower even from all the way over there. Her gloved fingers were like raven claws spread on the portable table. Her eyes shone from deep in her hood, bearing down on Meredith with displeasure.
“Nina,” she said, “carry on with the meeting, if you please.” She side-stepped around the nodding Nineteen and gestured toward the space-fold room. “A cent of your time, Sixty-Two.”
Meredith stood again, flushing hot under her clothes as the chair scraped noisily on the stone floor. Wordlessly they filed into the tiny side room. It was little more than an alcove, a minimal step up in privacy.
The moment they passed the threshold, the forewitch all but threw her against the wall. Eleven’s voice sizzled through the delicately contoured mask concealing her features. “What in Grothgor’s taint were you thinking?”
Meredith fought not to squeak under her imposing frame. “He’d done nothing wrong, I wanted to help―”
“You sent this man into an interrogation room, is that how you help?”
“I didn’t mean―”
“And now you come here! They could have placed you under surveillance, they could be out there staring at the front door right now.”
“No, I made sure they wouldn’t, I got laughed off just by suggesting it―”
“Unless that’s what they want you to believe. Do you think the Riven Circle has stayed in the shadows for so long by taking chances? Everyone here gets these impulses, but we all know restraint.” Her voice lowered to a more confidential volume. “You are an informant on the Head of the Coven, that is how you help. You should’ve brought the matter to our attention and let those among us who are qualified take action, if necessary.”
Eleven’s penchant for dramatic emphasis had always unsettled Meredith, and this night was no exception. “Nothing would’ve been done about this―”
“Yes, exactly, because what you did helped nobody, and we could have told you as much ahead of time. This is why the Circle exists in the first place, do you not see? Rash individual action is unwise and short-sighted, well-intentioned as it might be. We plan everything. We assess risk and reward and move only when the time is right. That is how we operate to get results without losses. You made everything worse, instead.”
Meredith looked away, lips pressed together. There was no arguing with the last point. She had a gift for abject failure.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I felt responsible.”
Don’t be sorry, Frau’s voice hissed in her thoughts. Be better.
“You are responsible, now.” Eleven’s grip had become gentle on Meredith’s shoulders. The harsh tone had mellowed, giving way to thoughtful lecturing. “Let it be a lesson. You gave in to our disease without a solid plan in mind, and it only caused more pain. Mercy is the burden we all share. Acting alone will crush you beneath its weight.”
Her features were obscured, but the cringe stuck to her voice and mirrored Meredith’s own. The defect that brought them all together was always an upsetting subject, best left unmentioned.
“I’m requesting a rescue mission,” Meredith said.
The forewitch startled. “For this human? That is absurd, absolutely not.”
“He’s obviously loyal, he hasn’t accused me. Isn’t he a perfect candidate?”
“That only proves he’s intelligent, he knows they’ll wipe him hard the moment he points at you. That’s not the issue. Even if he were fully vetted, he’s extremely high-profile right now. What’s more, he’ll be kept in Block One for quite some time.” She shook her head. “It’s simply not worth the risk, not by far. Pure clodbait.”
“We have to do something, I can’t just sit―”
“Oh, you can sit, and you will. These are the consequences of your actions, and you’ll hold the lesson to mind. Let us hope nothing more comes of this.”
“You’re not even going to put it to the table?”
“And say what, exactly? That we should place several field agents at extreme risk, out of consideration for your conscience?” Meredith could imagine the lips twisting around the word, the way they might around the word parasite. “Another brash action that would surely make everything worse, again. What you ask is nonsensical.”
Meredith lowered her eyes. As much as she wanted to argue further, she couldn’t quite come up with an actual counterpoint.
“The Circle doesn’t take such chances,” Eleven continued, “so now you’re going to sit in, and after half a span you will go back up there with Thirty-Seven. You’ll take her in your arms in a very convincing manner out in the open before starting on your way back home. And after you’re gone, you will keep away from us until the end of the next moon cycle, while everything settles down.”
“You . . . you truly believe they could be tracking me?”
“I believe it’s not a gamble I’m willing to make.”
Meredith silently nodded. She could hardly fault someone else for being paranoid. Eleven sighed dramatically. “The matter is settled. I might as well get your report on Mifraulde while we’re here.”
“Oh, um. Nothing much, I didn’t see her a lot. One issue did come up, quite important.”
“Let’s hear it, then.”
“Yes, uh. She’s very concerned about Selma Tarkai-Holtz-Grubber. The Tarkan prime gorgon? She’s very vocal about―”
“I know who Selma is.”
“Right, sorry. Apparently she’s become a real threat to Frau. She assured me she has it under control, but she seemed rattled, honestly.”
“Is there something we can do?”
“There is plenty. Silver is in charge of the Tarkis chapter, after all. There is a reason the Circle got started there. What’s been happening in the swamplands lately is an abomination, the last thing we need is someone like Selma in control of the Coven.”
“But what will be done?”
“I don’t know yet. We’ll put it to the table. Then I’ll talk to Silver.”
“I don’t want this to hurt Frau. It’s bad enough that I’m here shroudwise to her.”
Eleven waved the concern away. “You needn’t fret. Mifraulde is no ally, but knowing the alternatives, we want to keep her in power.” She nudged informant Brena Sixty-Two toward the room’s threshold. “We’re done here. Sit with us, and remember your instructions. I expect to see you at Farshaw Alley in one cycle’s time, if there are no signs of surveillance. Don’t you dare come near, otherwise.”
The prodding didn’t move her. Meredith was stuck in place, back still pressed to what was left of the hundred-year-old wallpaper. Frau’s words scraped against the insides of her skull.
You’re done with them. Disengage from those mercy-ridden fools.
Meredith’s lips puckered together. She looked into the forewitch’s mask and nodded, once.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be there.”
FOUR DIFFERENT LOCKS finally clattered shut. Raindrops spattered on the doormat. Bone-weary, barely awake and eventually drenched, Meredith had followed the most roundabout path back home there was, despite the well-established fact that nobody cared what she did or where she went.
She glanced at the sofa, concerned all the noise had disturbed Janette’s sleep. She didn’t even twitch. Not that it came as a surprise; she’d been pooped after barely a span of tater harvest. This girl was downright spindly, did humans simply not do anything outside nowadays?
After tossing the mask on her bed and hanging the cloak to dry, Meredith headed for the restroom with soft, deliberate steps. In retrospect, perhaps she should’ve curbed the girl’s enthusiasm a bit. It had been indulgent to let her chase the flitglows and play “rip the sack” with Desmond. The sheer delight in her laughter had been . . . well, interesting. In a purely academic sense.
Meredith freshened up, cleansed all the street niff off her arms and face, swished rotnot for a good centispan and fastidiously flossed on top of that. Her concerns and anxieties drowned one by one as the prospect of passing out in bed flooded her mind. Finally, a weekend. At last, the chance to sleep in. Every problem could wait until she woke up.
Back in her bedroom she fully disrobed, put on fresh underwear, donned her nightgown, undid her wet ponytail and brushed her hair. The weary stranger in the mirror didn’t even bother to wave hello. They’d met far too often, lately.
The voice reached her twenty-three strokes in. A sort of moaning, pitched low and drawn out like the growl of a cat.
Heavy eyelids widened, but not by much. Heavy thoughts struggled to process the sound, but only got as far as it came from the living room.
Meredith listened carefully.
She heard it well this time, a bit shorter, a bit louder. She got to her feet, taking a moment to keep her balance.
Another moan. Shuffling steps took her to the bedroom door. She cracked it open just a hair.
The girl didn’t answer. Only smolders remained in the hearth, shrouding the living room in red darkness and slow-thrumming shadows. Latent power permeated the room in a mouth-drying musk.
The next moan was long and anxious and angry, the impotent weep of an affronted ghost.
Meredith slowly approached the sleeping apprentice. She was restless on her back, fist balled on her blanket, fingers clutching the fabric with white-knuckled intensity. Her arms spasmed subtly, as if she wanted to move them but couldn’t. Tears glinted on half-lit features.
The only response was another moan. Meredith neared the couch and placed a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Janette.”
She wriggled in her sleep, as if trying to escape contact. The stress bolstered her thaumaturgic aura to a troublesome peak, enough to have Meredith worry it might be noticeable from outside. She sat at the edge of the cushion and shook the girl lightly. “Janette, wake up.”
The girl bared her teeth and slapped Meredith’s hand away. The witch frowned.
“Apprentice! Wake up!”
Janette gasped as her eyes flew open. She looked around in a disoriented panic before focusing on Meredith’s face. Her features relaxed after a moment of stupefied blinking, her body sinking into the cushions as the tension left her.
“Mistress,” she breathed. Her hands gripped Meredith’s arm and pressed it to her chest as if her mentor could disappear from one heartbeat to the next.
“You were having a nightmare. Moaning.”
Janette didn’t respond for a while.
“I’m sorry,” she finally said, voice small.
“I’m sorry I woke you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.”
Meredith felt a nigh on irresistible urge to brush the girl’s hair off her forehead, but she refrained from it. Janette’s breath slowly mellowed. Her desperate clutching subsided. Her eyes were cast down and her cheeks were red.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “This is embarrassing.” She noticed her face was wet and made an effort to wipe the tears away.
“Here.” Meredith handed her one of the napkins on the table.
Janette breathed a deep sigh and worked on calming herself. Meredith watched her, lips pursed, brow knit. The girl wouldn’t stop shaking.
“Are you alright?”
“I’ll be okay. I didn’t mean. . . .” She left the sentence unfinished.
“Do you . . . want to talk about it?”
Janette winced, shook her head. “It’s nothing.”
“Nothing? You look quite upset.”
“Yeah, but . . . I’ll be okay. It was just a nightmare, I’ve had them before. It wasn’t real.”
“Do you often have nightmares?”
“No, well, not . . . really. I do, sometimes, but it’s, um. It’s complicated.”
“Oh, it wasn’t even the same this time, it was different. I dreamt I’d gone back, and everything we’ve done was just a fantasy, and I was back to that other life. I’ll be okay, Mistress, I promise. Thank you so much for asking, and for waking me up.”
Meredith sniffed with amusement at the obvious deflection. She shrugged. “Well, we better get some sleep. You’ll probably be up before I am, try not to make much noise. There is much for you to study, still.”
The girl smiled almost convincingly. “Yes, I’ll get right on it.”
“Good.” Meredith started to get up from the couch. Looking at that smile, she hesitated. “Will you be alright?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
The answer was suspiciously tardy. After some pondering, Meredith’s butt remained on the edge of the seat. She looked at the embers.
“That’s a lovely hearth, isn’t it?”
“It’s . . . very soothing, Mistress.”
“It’s been a while since I last enjoyed it. Do you mind if I stay for a spell?”
Janette breathed in as if to say something. She reconsidered at the last moment. “You don’t have to do that,” she said in a tiny voice.
“Do what? This is my home, I’ll sit where I please. So, yes, you will make room for me to get comfortable, apprentice.”
The girl gave a timid smile. She folded her legs to give her mentor ample room on the other side of the sofa. “Of course, Mistress Meredith.”
Meredith scooted down the couch and settled by Janette’s feet. She rested a reassuring hand on the apprentice’s ankle and watched the red and black wood as it smoldered. “Such lovely colours.”
“I never knew how nice a real fire was.”
“I’m positive the cold climate cycle was engineered into the system only so we could enjoy a good hearth.”
The girl was quiet for a few beats. “All climate is engineered?”
Meredith nodded. “Caterina and her associates shaped this pocket of reality almost from scratch. Climate control was a matter of necessity. The system continues to get perfected even today.”
Janette spoke at the end of a huge yawn. “How does it work? I’d love to know.”
“Well, I’m no engineer, so I can’t give you details, but all climate originates from moving air and water. Galavan is mostly a large valley, which makes the flow of water quite straightforward. The Coren mountain range traps the clouds, which is to say moisture, which trickles down until it all joins together to become the Froth—the river, that is. Tarkis Swamp, at the bottom, is controlled by a network of coil-furnaces that evaporate whatever is necessary for the desired cycle. It’s always extremely humid down there, and the swamp-dwellers like it that way. You see, it’s a very small closed system compared to Earth’s impossibly large climate, so we can control every variable.”
The girl’s voice came in a drowsy slur. “That’s . . . amazing.”
Meredith continued. “Rainfall rotates all over Galavan. For Brena—that’s the name of this area, did I mention that yet? I think I did—it comes every Nynday at dayturn. We’re pretty far up, we don’t get the kind of rain the crops do, closer to the swamp. I have to water from time to time, especially the hansels, they’re greedy little imps.”
“The furnaces make the swamp very warm, while the mountain range is kept close to freezing by the heat-eaters up there. So you see, to control surface temperature realm-wide, all you need to do is control airflow. That’s why we’ll often refer to the changing of seasons as the Tarkis breeze or the Coren chill. This is done through the flowlines. The Felling line passes close to my cottage, you can see the post from the garden. Conceptual runes drive the winds along pathways depending on the power fed into the lines. It used to be raw spark, but the whole system was overhauled to run on electricity. Feed more power into the paths you want and you create airflow in that direction.”
No answer or acknowledgement came.
“It takes a lot of power to keep everything going, you know? Not just the flowlines or the Tarkan weather furnaces—there’s also the gravitational mesh, and the skyveil nodework, and all these other fundamental systems that keep Galavan stable. It’s quite complicated. I wasn’t joshing when I said artificers are important.
“Anyway, I’ll take the cold season any day, I don’t much like the heat. Of course, it doesn’t get that hot, nobody will be sweltering like it happens on Earth, but some chill makes for comfortable sleeping. Plus the ravens prefer the cold, they come down cheering from the Range. I like ravens, they make the funniest sounds. The garden does get better in the warm season, all the blussels will be in bloom, and the swarms of coraline flitglows come up from Devalen and light up the brush, it’s very eye-catching. You’ll like it.”
Meredith glanced at the girl. Her breath had become long and steady. Her jaw had slackened and her lips were parted.
“Actually, I misspoke, the winds are created by invisible creatures called . . . gallyphants. Yes, they’re invisible mammoth beasts, suspended in mid-air by magical harnesses. The gallyphants blow very hard through their trunks and flap their feathered wings whenever we zap them with cattleprods. Oh, yes, this is all one hundred percent factual.”
The only answer was heavy breathing. Satisfied, Meredith wriggled against the cushions and rolled her shoulders until half her body had sunk in. It was hardly a step down from her own bed. To this day she scoffed at the silly crone who’d posted the sofa on the Exchange simply because her cat had ripped apart a chunk of the fabric.
Her mind drifted. For long moments she remained motionless, thoughts turning to the events of the day, to every word said behind mask and cowl. The coals chattered among themselves in their own quiet conversation.
“I don’t know what to do,” she confessed in a mutter. Janette didn’t stir.
“I made a terrible mistake. I don’t know how to fix it.”
Well, she did know how to fix it, but she couldn’t possibly pull off a rescue by herself. The Circle had resources, they’d been smuggling out duds and stunts for decades. How much harder could this one be?
“For all their talk, they don’t do much.”
Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe they’d release him over the weekend and by Firsday everything would go back to normal. There was no need to worry. She was a witch, she wasn’t meant to worry about these things.
They would hard-wipe him, of course. Another empty shell ready for re-training. Or not even bother with the wipe and just. . . dispose of him.
Because of what she’d done.
Meredith chewed on her lip for a while.
“Let it go,” she murmured. “Just let it go.”
She stretched her legs, let out a murky sigh and watched the fire through half-lidded eyes.
The embers sure were lovely.
CELL 2-B, BLOCK ONE. A nightmare to reach undetected, but doable.
Firsday had gone by. And Seconday, and Thirday, and a whole week after that. A whole week without signs of Four-Thirteen.
Because of what she’d done.
It had surprised her, how heavy a weight the guilt was, how prevalent. It refused to let go of her, it grew heavier with each passing day. The guilt was an anchor lodged in her chest, pulling her ever deeper into the bog until it consumed her every thought.
Such a thing was not witch-like. Not in the slightest.
Meredith no longer felt that weight as she crept through the corridors of the holding pens, odor neutralizer activated, aural dampener masking her every sound. Large swathes of darkness separated what few islands of light there were, providing plenty of cover. Though inexpensive lighting had been available for centuries, administration felt it was important to keep the fusty dungeon feel. The smell of the place would’ve reinforced that notion for her, had the odor neutralizer not have been engaged.
The human was a black mound in the dark cell. He’d been there for three days, according to his entry on the log. It had been an ordeal all of itself to check as much the day before. Three days in the holding pens meant he’d spent the previous eight enduring Judicar ministrations.
Meredith deactivated the aural dampener. The patrol paths gave her a tenth-span window to carry out her deranged plan.
“Human,” she whispered.
The mound stirred. She waited for a response or more movement, but neither happened.
“Human,” she rasped, slightly more urgent.
He stirred again, lifted his head and saw her. Recognized her. He startled, bolted off the cot and moved toward the prison bars, but lost his footing in the process and fell to the stone floor, into the dim light. Meredith winced at a sight that was much like she’d feared. No wonder he’d tripped. They were not planning to wipe and reinstate this serf.
At least he was clean.
From one of her pockets Meredith produced a rolled-up strip of long, narrow parchment. “We don’t have much time. Don’t make any noise.”
She knelt in front of the barred room and one after another she measured and ripped lengths of the strip, wrapping each one at the base of every bar in front of her. Four-Thirteen sat upright and repeatedly pointed away among angry groans.
She finished the bottom five, then moved to the top end, wrapping parchment slightly above her head. The two crossbars followed. The human grew more frantic, his guttural groans becoming louder.
“Are you mad? Be quiet!”
“Bee high yoo!” he sputtered. Blood dribbled down his chin. “Bee high yoo!”
On second thought, he wasn’t pointing away in the general sense of the word. He pointed at a very specific spot behind Meredith.
Her eyes widened, and she jumped out of the way just as the beast pounced. It landed where she’d been standing only a moment ago, its claws scraping against metal and stone.
With a scream trapped in her throat Meredith took off running, shaky hands fumbling at her holster. The savage clack-and-grind of the cat’s claws followed close behind; a heaving shadow swallowed her whenever she passed a lamp, getting larger with every spot of light. Vivid images of her entrails flying through the hallways crowded her thoughts and emptied her lungs.
Her crossbow clicked ready in her hand. Meredith whirled and didn’t give herself time to stare at the maw of the beast.
A bolt the size of a pencil went into the hunter’s mouth and buried itself at the back of its throat. The creature thumped against Meredith with a roar, pinning her to the ground, knocking out of her what wind she had left as her gear dug into her kidneys. The weapon flew out of her grasp and bounced on the nearby wall. Panic seized her as she fought against paws as large and heavy as cast-iron pans, her legs shoving and kicking desperately while the hem of her black robes ripped and tore under iron-vise hind claws. It was after an eternity of life-or-death struggle that she understood the beast was only twitching and convulsing without purpose.
She struggled to shove it off of her, but lacked the strength. For agonizing moments she squirmed and wriggled, slowly inching her way out from under it. From her position Meredith had plenty of time to notice the intricate patterns on the hunter’s infusion-grounding collar. Even if a suitable spell had come to her lips at the right time, that collar would have rendered her magic as effective as a lullaby.
Good thing the nettlecap toxin she’d brewed didn’t have a lick of infusion poured into it.
Meredith got to her feet, readjusted her hat, grabbed her weapon and ran back to Four-Thirteen’s cell, free hand already digging in another pocket as shreds of robe fluttered about her shins. On the way she noticed a different human behind bars, sitting, staring blankly into a wall. She paid him no mind.
Reaching the appropriate cell took far longer than she’d expected. Had she truly run so far?
“You could’ve told me you were being watched!”
Four-Thirteen glared, or gaped, or both. There was a wild cast to his eyes that made all the sense in the world, considering what he’d endured so far.
Meredith’s livid fingers clutched her kitchen firestarter as she brought its flame to the knots on the wrapped parchment. Her heart pounded, her breath collided against her teeth as it traveled in and out of her lungs at a rate that couldn’t be healthy.
“Stand back,” she needlessly said, her voice a high-pitched quaver. Four-Thirteen had already shambled well away from the exit to his cell.
Each section of parchment flared in quick succession, strings of words whispering and burning out with the medium that contained them. Every piece became a white-hot band around the metal, pressing inwards with sizzling intensity until the material was completely melted. Acrid fumes spread through the area as the dungeon’s temperature dropped to an icy chill in response to the magical heat.
The new door sank and fell with a loud clatter. Kerchief held to her nose, Meredith quickly stepped through. With every care she could afford, she wrapped Four-Thirteen’s arm around her shoulders. The serf groaned the moment his bandaged burns pressed against Meredith. The tell-tale welts and cuts of the Judicar wheel scored jagged paths down his back. His right leg was every shade of purple, swollen turgid from toes to knee.
Her left hand clasped his in a tight grip.
“Hold my hand. Do you understand me? Whatever you do, don’t let go of my hand.”
She couldn’t have controlled the shaking in her voice even if she’d tried. Four-Thirteen eyed her like she was a raving lunatic, but still did as was told. Braced against Meredith, he did what he could to walk out of the cell without touching the molten nubs.
Three different halls converged at the intersection a few steps ahead. The cat mewlings already neared from every direction, heavy bootsteps heralding the swift approach of the juditor on duty. She’d be coming from behind, Meredith knew.
“We’re going ahead, then left.” She parted her mangled robe and pulled hard on a ribbon attached to her belt. Glyphs lit up around the belt’s circumference, words flowing in a sinister susurrus. Witch and serf vanished.
“This thing is almost depleted, we have twelve cents to get out. Can’t talk anymore.” She held the aural dampener within its pocket, thumb caressing the knob that would activate it. “If you let go of my hand, we’re both dead.”
She switched it on and every sound died around them. They started forward, the human struggling to keep apace by painstakingly hobbling against Meredith’s hip. It was extremely disorienting to walk without seeing her own limbs.
They waited at the intersection for the approaching patrols, pressing themselves against the stone wall just beyond the lamplight. Chest heaving with anxiety, Meredith held her crossbow in her free hand, ready to use it at the first sign of discovery. Though the optical camouflage was near flawless, she could notice a tiny rippling distortion any time she moved.
One hunter cat loped by, then another. She pushed forward without delay, bracing the wall as they rounded the bend. Another beast passed them at a canter, and its lashing tail brushed across Meredith’s chest.
She froze in place. The cat slowed, stopping before reaching the intersection. It turned around. It let out a drawling whine, like an old, creaky door being slowly pushed open. It stalked toward their position.
Meredith stilled her breath, took careful aim down the invisible sights of her crossbow, and pulled the trigger not one meter away from the creature’s face.
Blood spattered on the weapon and vanished as the dart pierced the hunter’s eye and almost disappeared into its skull. The beast startled, stumbled, dropped to the ground with a muffled thud.
Meredith’s throat lurched with nausea, and right away she averted her eyes from the twitching body. She put her every thought into moving forward as fast as they could go, nearly hauling the serf over her shoulder. Though no sound could outstrip the dampener’s influence, his pained grunting rumbled against her chest.
A voice bellowed far behind them: “Human fugitive! Seal all the exits!”
That would be the juditor, finding a broken and empty cell and no trace of the escapee.
“Well, twaddlebag,” Meredith whispered, though she herself couldn’t hear it. “Plan B it is.”
At the next intersection she turned right where she would’ve turned left, the dungeon’s blueprints clear in her mind. Several more hunters rushed by without a glance, possibly heading toward the employee access door Meredith had planned to use. She plowed ahead, fervently hoping they wouldn’t anticipate her alternative escape route. She didn’t have a plan C.
A few turns later they arrived at an arched entryway as wide as she was tall. Dim lamplight let her read the sign above it, charcoal letters on dark wood. Hunter Dens, it said.
Four-Thirteen made as if to stop moving, but she goaded him forward.
The dens were a sea of thick shadows. Waning moonlight crept in through the multitude of second-story windows, wrapping every catwalk and pillar in silver contours. The catwalks interconnected in convoluted pathways all the way to the ceiling, where the prime lairs could be found. Giant fur-laden cushions littered the floor, strewn around load-bearing pillars wrapped in waist-thick rope. Several sections of rope were shredded to a mess of strings.
She stood at the threshold, terribly glad the odor suppressor worked both ways. There was no movement within: every beast was deployed, searching the dungeon, and none should remain. Who in their right mind would go into their den to hide?
The timer on her girdle precluded further caution. After evaluating the shady paths ahead, Meredith picked the sturdiest ramp she could find. Her breath ran ragged with exhaustion even before they started the climb.
Four-Thirteen leaned on her more and more, groans rumbling against her ribcage. Meredith’s legs were ready to give out by the time she reached the second tier and turned toward the windows. Though no sound emanated from their position, the catwalk did vibrate with their every labored step.
They were almost to a windowsill when a high-pitched hiss came from directly above. They stopped immediately, standing as still as their level of exertion would let them. Meredith looked up with her heart in her throat and came eye-to-eye with a mouth full of fangs.
Well, there were only eight fangs, and fairly tiny at that. The rest of the cub’s teeth had hardly come out. The creature hung from its perch upside-down, tail lashing behind it, paws extended, mouth open, nose sniffing the air not one finger-width away from the brim of Meredith’s hat. The cub’s black, fuzzy coat reflected the moonlight in pale blue hues.
She leaned back slowly, as far as her burden would allow. With glacial movements she raised the semiautomatic crossbow once more. Meredith’s lips curled in distaste as her finger gradually pressed—
Another cub jumped out of the shadows and attacked the lashing tail in front of it. The first one yelled a startled meow and scrambled to a different platform, moving to chase its fleeing aggressor. They disappeared into the darkness among muffled fighting sounds.
Meredith exhaled her held breath and hurried to the window. It was shaped as a tall wedge, point at the top, and the glass was stained with a texture that cast moving shadows on the sill. Like all the others, it was sealed shut.
Wordlessly she motioned Four-Thirteen to lean against the wall, guiding his hand to hold on to the girdle. She pulled out the roll of igneous parchment and ripped two long strips, then a shorter one—all done by touch, as she couldn’t see what she was doing. Meredith licked each strip in a few spots before plastering them all along the window’s perimeter. The parchment materialized against the glass surface the moment she released it.
She dug through another pocket in her robe. “See? I knew all this stuff would be useful one day,” Meredith told the serf between wheezing pants, conscious that he couldn’t hear. “I wasn’t just filching things for no reason all this time.”
Her firestarter lit the end of each parchment. Soon after, heat ate into the glass with a high-pitched sizzle, prompting the cubs to start screeching and hissing—noises loud enough to resonate well beyond the den’s confines.
So much for noiselessly propping the glass against the wall. The textured sheet came loose and turned invisible for the instant it was in contact with Meredith’s boot. The kick sent it flying, spinning all the way to ground level outside, where it shattered in a huge spray of tiny fragments. Strands of molten glass stretched and waned like wilting stems all around the newly opened window.
Without a moment to waste, they gingerly stepped onto the narrow ledge outside. The dens jutted out in a dome from the holding pens. Meredith oriented herself based on the landmarks she could see: there’s Galvan Tower, there’s Broken Peak, over there is Sabrena’s obelisk. They needed to go right, around the building and Distal-Tarkisward.
She reached behind her back, between shirt and robe, and detached from its harness the last tool they should need. It was a rectangular slab, as big as a large notebook, with an ovoid protrusion at its center. Meredith uncoupled the controller and dropped it in a pocket, then felt around the slab’s contours until she found the corner notch. She pried at it and the trinket unfolded, once, twice, clicking firmly in place with each motion.
The former notebook had become a doormat-sized platform humming in her hands. She placed it on the ledge in front of them with the fervent hope that it hadn’t been damaged during all the cat wrestling. It sure had damaged her back plenty.
The trinket, hovering over the wooden ledge, became visible as soon as she stopped touching it: a black dais, glossy once upon a time, with rounded edges chipped in places. Its surface was scored with sinuous bronze patterns of tiny glowing glyphs. Shallow indentations housing the appropriate directional knobs marked where her feet should go.
Meredith held the controller in one hand while guiding her rescuee onto the dais, struggling to fit together while correctly placing her feet. Once more the trinket became invisible. As the safety repulsion field engaged around them and the controller came alive against her faced-down palm, she was almost too frazzled to remember the accident that had seen her license revoked in perpetuity.
Almost. In quick succession the images flashed again, the tardy rush to the ceremony, losing control upon arrival, plowing through the banquet and the decorations and the row packed with dignitaries. Mifraulde, up in her high seat, horrified, livid, mortified.
The ground below started spinning. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Nothing will happen,” Meredith muttered. “It’ll be fine. Nothing will happen.”
She reopened her eyes and simply added looking down to the list of things she’d best ignore at that moment—noted right under the feline screeches and juditor stomps rising from the entrance to the dens. She raised the controller and tilted it forward. The dais took off just as a fireball the size of a grown hog shot under their feet. It rushed by close enough to make her legs feel like she’d just jumped into an oven.
“Don’t look at it don’t look at it don’t look at it―”
Meredith fought the controller’s inertia and pushed it to propel them as fast as they could go. The tilt necessary to compensate their sudden acceleration rendered them almost horizontal. In muttered gibbering she reassured herself she was not about to become an airborne hunk of charred flesh. As they picked up speed, Brena zoomed below them at a stupid rate.
Followed by lobbed fire and angry hisses, a transparent shade coursed under the moonlit skyveil, its flight swift like wind through the flowlines.
THEY CRASH-LANDED in a dark alley that ran along the crumbled city walls, behind Farshaw Street and a few intersections away from Blackened Square. The dais bumped a rooftop as they came in for landing, which made it wobble and ruin the orientation of the backthrust, which sent them rolling on cobblestones.
It wasn’t too bad a crash, by Meredith’s past record.
Their trip ended abruptly against the wall, and as if on cue the invisibility girdle whimpered dead. It took Meredith a good while to form coherent thoughts, and a bit longer to find her footing. Next morning’s bruises were already blooming, while her stomach felt as if clenched in a fist.
“’Scuse me,” she squeaked. She took a few steps to the side and retched. What was it, the third meal she spewed this moon cycle? At least this time she had an aural inhibitor to mask her abject heaves.
Not so for the human’s groans, which had become dangerously loud. Four-Thirteen huddled against the brick wall, bracing a leg that had already been injured before landing. Meredith wiped a tissue across her mouth and switched off the aural dampener.
“Sorry,” she slurred, but was interrupted by a coughing fit. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed sandpaper. Her belly still writhed with motion sickness and nerves. She tried again, nearly breathless. “Sorry, that was my fault. We’re almost there.”
Meredith stood upright and had to lean against the wall for support as the alley spun all around. Her field of vision shrunk to almost black; it returned over the course of several deep breaths. She goaded herself to collect the dais—which had powered off farther down the cobbles, perhaps damaged beyond repair—and folded it into its harness.
“Let’s go. Only a few more steps.”
There wasn’t a whole lot of gratitude in his glower, but he cooperated when she draped his arm around her shoulders and hauled him up. He was clearly on the verge of screaming as they hobbled toward an unassuming metal door at the bottom of the alley.
“It’s almost over,” she said, mostly to herself. The door was a solid mass of gray, its only feature an indented rectangle at brow height. She’d almost knocked when she realized her face was plain for all to see.
With her free hand she tugged the floppy brim of her hat as low as it would go. The hood of her robe went over it, mushing it all down. She’d brought her mask, it was bundled in another pocket, but she’d need both hands to put it on. Four-Thirteen might not make it back to his feet if she dropped him again.
Meredith knocked in three sets of three and waited.
The indentation slid open, revealing faint light behind a metallic lattice.
“Can I help you? Are you lost?” A gasp sounded on the other side. “Who is that?”
Thirty-Seven again, hex the sun. Meredith scoured her brain to recall the entry code. “The night is calm, but the winds are changing. Open up quick, they could be after us.”
“Are you mad? I’m not letting that in without approval. What’s your number?”
“It’s Sixty-Two, I said the words, let us in!”
“That’s last cycle’s words. Wait there, I need to ask about this.”
Meredith pounded the door. “There’s no time, this is sanctioned business, you’ll be suspended if you delay any longer, just let me in already!”
There was a hesitant pause. After a lengthy series of rattles and clacks and opening bolts, the door swung inward. “No-one told me about this,” Thirty-Seven said. “You’d think they’d let me know when a flaming human fugitive is coming.”
“Just an oversight. Now, please―”
“You look terrible.” She looked the newcomers up and down. “Sixty-Two. Since when do you go on field missions?”
Meredith shifted under her burden, head firmly downcast. “I’ve no time for your questions. Where’s Ella?”
Thirty-Seven made a petulant pause. “What, you’re a veteran now? That’s Eleven for you. I don’t like your tone. Last I knew you were only an informant, this seems dreadfully―”
“Where in the frothing gape of Shaglaroth is Eleven!”
The witch startled and stared as if she’d just seen the door spontaneously combust. “She’s is in the meeting room. Assembly is still going.”
“Fine, great, just what I needed.” Meredith shoved past Thirty-Seven’s girth and shambled down the narrow stairs, injured human in tow. The hallway leading to the meeting room had never seemed so long.
Someone came to the doorway as Meredith neared it, no doubt alerted by all the grunting and scraping noises. “What―”
Meredith thrust her burden at whoever it was. “This is Four-Thirteen,” she said between pants. “Help me carry him to the table, please.”
“What?” The stranger pulled her hands away from the load, the shift in balance nearly throwing Meredith and her charge to the floor.
“Hold on to his arm and help me!”
The stranger seemed too shocked to argue. The sound of conversation had died abruptly, and those seated around the large wooden table watched in appalled silence as the newcomers labored their way to the middle of the room. Two of the nearest witches quickly stood and got out of their path when Meredith gave no signs of stopping.
They laid down the battered serf as delicately as they could. She eyed his leg with worry. If it wasn’t broken, it was close to it. His arduous breathing filled a meeting room that had fallen into a stiff silence.
When Meredith looked up—which, with the smushed hat, reached as far as chest-high—Brena Eleven stood at the head of the table, fingers clutching the wood as if trying to splinter it.
“What have you done, Sixty-Two?”
Meredith felt the heat of her glare and the scrutiny of every other witch in the room like a line of searchlights focused on her skull. “I―”
“Is this not the serf for which you requested help?”
“And what did we decide, not even one week ago?”
“That it was too risky, but―”
“Pure clodbait, those are the exact words I used, before making it perfectly clear, again, that you were not to contact us for at least a cycle.”
“And yet you turn up here, bringing this wreck to our door, risking everything we―”
“Can’t you help him first and yell at me later? Soot and ash, look at him.”
The forewitch stalled, glowering at the interruption. Her stance softened at the sorry sight before her.
“Fifty-One,” she said after a moment of consideration, “fetch Twelve, if you please. Tell her to bring tools to treat a broken leg and . . . lacerations, contusions, burns and possible internal bleeding.”
The stocky witch who had helped carry Four-Thirteen disappeared through the doorway. A bitter tone entered Brena Eleven’s concealed voice. “The Judicars spared no resource on this one, it looks like. Or were his wounds inflicted on the way here?”
“I found him like this.”
“How long until they’re tearing down these walls?”
“They couldn’t follow me.” Meredith drew back her shredded robe and showed the spent girdle. With her other hand she fished out her aural dampener and odor neutralizer and placed them on the table. Nineteen, to Eleven’s left, made a scoffing sound, while a spindly witch Meredith didn’t recognize let out an appreciative whistle. The chapter’s leader leaned forward.
“How did you come by these? You’re barely―” she caught herself and bit off the rest. Meredith rushed to fill the void.
“I know I took a big risk, but I went in prepared.”
“Well, regardless, we can’t underestimate the Judicars. We’re moving two shelters forwards in the rotation, effective immediately. You can all thank Sixty-Two for the trouble. Let us hope that’ll be the end of it.”
A chorus of groans and displeased mumbling spread around the table. The large witch that had scoffed at Meredith’s trinkets seemed particularly disgruntled. “Right now? We barely got started before this interruption. I lose enough sleep as it is.”
Eleven was about to respond when Fifty, uh . . . was it Fifty-One? Meredith couldn’t keep all the code numbers straight. Fifty-Something returned from fetching Twelve. She was followed by a short figure that moved with quick strides and swaying gait. Her robes were tan, with the saggy complexion of a swamp dweller showing on her exposed jaw and rolled-up sleeves. She carried an oversize leather bag in one hand and long splints under her armpit.
“Where’s the victim?” she asked, then moved toward the prostrate human without waiting for a response. Eleven gestured at him anyway.
“Tata, do what you can and prepare to move him. We can’t stay here.”
“I’ll do what I’ll do and you’ll wait if necessary, and that’s it.” Twelve had plopped her leather bag beside Four-Thirteen and was pulling out the tools she’d need. “Will you fair damsels make some room for me to work, or do you plan on spectating through the night from your front-row seats?”
The varied group of witches sitting closest grumbled to their feet. “Tata” didn’t spare them a second glance, already busy inspecting every one of the human’s injuries.
The forewitch sighed. “Gather your belongings and prepare to travel, everyone. Nina, you have the room. I need to make arrangements to deal with our new . . . situation.”
She walked toward the door, passing next to Meredith, who hadn’t left the human’s side.
“Follow me. You and I will have words about this.”
Meredith swallowed and nodded. Brena Eleven and her dramatic emphasis, always unnerving.
A hand clamped on her wrist before she could start moving, and she looked down to see Four-Thirteen staring at her. He pulled on his grip, leaning closer through great effort. His gaze was intense, holding her in place more effectively than any fist around her bones could.
His iris was hazel, not brown. She’d never noticed before.
“Ghon gheev,” he managed to say through bloodstained teeth.
Past cracked lips she glimpsed horrifying gaps between molars.
“Ghon gheev me wiv-vem.”
Meredith processed the garbled words until they fell together into an intelligible sentence.
Don’t leave me with them.
“I . . . I have nowhere else to take you. They will treat you well. You’re free now.”
His fist tightened. Twelve put her hand on his chest and applied gentle pressure. “None of that,” she quietly said, almost tender. “You won’t be moving for a while.”
He didn’t seem to have the strength to resist anymore. His grip eased as he all but passed out on the table.
Meredith squeezed his hand before shuffling after the forewitch.
SHAKY FROM EXHAUSTION, Meredith sat by a foldable desk as the leader of Brena’s chapter arranged Four-Thirteen’s fate. Eleven could’ve made her wait outside the door, but she was probably making a point of how much hassle the incident had caused.
Silently Meredith witnessed comm spells she couldn’t have hoped to cast herself, direct voice tunnels to counterparts in two other chapters. Together they rearranged the meeting schedule and coordinated for safe lodging and an eventual smuggling to Earth. It would’ve been much simpler to use standard transceivers through the skyveil nodework, but such comms were terribly susceptible to surveillance.
The shimmer from the last voice tunnel faded, and Eleven turned to face a properly contrite Sixty-Two. The forewitch stared for a while, her silent intensity dampened by the bustle outside the room.
“Pull back your hood, Meredith.”
She said it one step above a whisper. With some reserve Meredith complied and kept her head down. Eleven leaned elbows on the desk and entangled her fingers. “You labour for a pittance at the manufactory. How’d you come by those trinkets?”
“They’re Mifraulde’s discards. Artifacts gifted to her that she didn’t care for. She dumps them on my lap for ‘safekeeping.’”
“Are you certain you were not followed or identified?”
She met Eleven’s eyes. They were two black dots beneath the finely contoured mask. “Yes,” she lied again, “absolutely.”
“None of the proper steps were followed for this human,” Eleven said. “He could be unstable or broken beyond hope. He didn’t even seem all that grateful toward you. Whatever foolish spirit possessed you to do this?”
“He’s not broken. He held out for a whole week without incriminating me.”
“That’s inconclusive. It could be obstinance, or pride, or madness. You’re not qualified to make the call.”
“I had to do something.”
“Doing something and dropping him on our doorstep are two very different things. You chose to endanger us all.”
She waved Meredith’s words away. “Save it. I’ll consider suitable discipline later. For now you will sever all contact with us for the next six cycles. No reports on Mifraulde, no meetings, and certainly no requests for help. Understood?”
“But I want to be here when he―”
“No, this could all be traced back to you anyway and I can’t take the risk if they place you under surveillance. At the very least they’ll question you in some capacity due to your connection to the fugitive.”
Meredith swallowed again. She hadn’t thought about that. “What’s going to happen to him now?”
“You ask as if there’s any doubt we’ll take care of him. He’s a victim, we’re not Judicar thugs.”
“No, I just meant―”
“I know what you meant. We’ll heal his wounds and evaluate his mental state. If he’s viable, we’ll soft-wipe him like we do to every human we rescue, and then we’ll drop him on Earth.”
“And . . . if he’s not viable? What makes him ‘viable,’ exactly?”
“That’s for me to decide. I’m not here to answer your questions, Meredith. I’m already affording you an unwise amount of lenience.”
“Please. I need to know.”
Eleven sighed. “Understanding of the situation. Willingness to cooperate. A number of other factors. Only from what little I’ve already seen, I’ve some doubts. And he’s full-grown. The older they are, the harder it is to wipe their memory without touching anything else.”
“So what happens then, if he’s not viable?”
“You know what happens then. We’ll have no choice.”
Meredith’s gut shriveled. “I didn’t go through all this just for you to kill him anyway!”
“Lower your voice. We’ll do what we can, but if he’s too unstable, there are no alternatives. That’s our reality. You know death is still a better fate than their former life.”
“Shouldn’t he decide that?”
“Humans in his circumstances don’t make rational decisions.”
“So return him to Earth anyway! Somewhere remote. One human alone can’t undo the masquerade, they’d just treat him as a madman.”
Eleven leaned back in abhorrence. “One exception is one too many, you should know that. You’re distraught. I’ll pretend you didn’t even suggest it.”
Meredith remained in her seat, head down and lips squirming. She shouldn’t have brought him here. She should’ve found a way to hide him, to smuggle him out to Earth all by herself . . . somehow.
Just as before, she couldn’t come up with a single alternative plan.
After staring for a bit longer Eleven leaned over the table, one gloved hand palm up. It took Meredith a moment to understand the intent. With unsure movements she reached out, and black-leathered fingers gently closed around hers.
“By brood and power,” Eleven said, “I will do everything I can to see him through. That’s all I can promise.”
Meredith gazed into the sparkling darkness past delicate eyelid lines. “I . . . I believe you. Thank you.”
Eleven squeezed, then let go. “Now, repeat back to me what I told you to do.”
“Oh, um. No contact of any kind for six cycles.”
“Which means no contact until. . . .” She gestured for Meredith to complete the sentence.
“The . . . the thirtieth day of Bloom.”
“Good. If I or any of us get even so much as a whiff of you before then, the Circle will deem you a liability. You don’t want that. Are you aware of how the Circle deals with liabilities?”
“Call me Ella.” The forewitch scribbled something on a piece of paper, tore it off and stood, motioning for Meredith to do the same. “You look awful. Twenty-Three will portal you home before we move out.”
“That’s not necessary, I can walk, it’s not far. . . .”
“It’s not a request, you seem about to fall over. More importantly, you must not be seen outside, tonight of all nights. No doubt the search has already begun. One glimpse of your shredded robes and it will be over.”
Considering the issue settled, she walked around the desk and toward the doorway. Meredith followed, but instead of opening the door, Brena Eleven leaned back against the knob.
“One last thing before I go. Would you like to be a field agent?”
Meredith blinked slowly.
Meredith stared blankly.
“You’re surprised? You singlehandedly entered the holding pens, rescued a Block One prisoner and came out unscathed.”
Meredith glanced down at the tatters below her thighs. “I, um. I wouldn’t say ‘unscathed,’ exactly.”
“None of the blood is yours, is it?”
“No.” She checked herself, just in case. “No, I don’t think so.”
“An impressive feat. Though we all risk much doing what we do, facing danger so directly is a world apart. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“I don’t, I just . . . didn’t have a choice.”
“That’s rubbish, of course you did. I don’t offer this lightly, Meredith. You’ll still have to be tested and vetted, of course, but the choice to pursue it is now yours to make. I’m offering you a chance to make a real difference.”
“But I disobeyed your direct command. Endangered everyone.”
“You did, and you’ve been temporarily suspended, pending further penalties. One issue does not preclude the other.”
Meredith’s eyes darted around the paltry room without focusing on anything in particular. In her mind’s eye she saw herself slinking through dark alleys, infiltrating posh houses, freeing personal slaves, battling to stay always hidden from the Judicars. Foolishly she also envisioned freeing youths from the harvest pods and breeding dens, even though the Circle would never dare cross that line.
Then she saw her own capture, the extensive sessions on a Judicar wheel and her sobbing confessions. Mifraulde’s outrage and disgust as they dragged her broken body to the Blackened Square. The searing torment of a fire-wreathed purge.
Her chest clenched with anxiety.
“I can’t do it,” she breathed.
“You just risked everything to rescue this human. It seems to me your convictions say otherwise.”
“It’s different. It was my fault. I was responsible, I owed him.”
“We all owe the serfs. We owe it to ourselves to rise above Puritan doctrine and pursue a better society.”
“It’s different. . . .”
“Is it? If that’s the case, you still owe this debt to the Circle, don’t you? This wasn’t our operation, yet it’s us that will keep him hidden, now. One could argue you’re obligated to do whatever I ask, if you’re so concerned with repaying debts.”
It’s different, Meredith insisted in her thoughts. Her weight shifted in the seat. “Well, even then, I’m useless without trinkets. I can’t afford to recharge or replace what I spent today. I couldn’t do it again.”
“Equipment would be provided. We’d hardly expect our field agents to expend their own artifacts on every operation. Your experience with magical items is in fact a boon. Haven’t you noticed? The pendulum is swinging again, less and less witches rely on raw incantation alone, and who could blame them? Technology is so much more convenient. It’s the way of the future, it always was. Don’t you agree?”
“Clinging to the old ways will only leave us at a disadvantage. Could you imagine, if we hadn’t been so extreme after the Golem Revolts? Always the problem, this all-or-nothing approach. There are some that disagree, of course, and some of them sit at our own table. It’s dismaying, how reactionary some of us can be.”
“So from where I’m standing, you might just be ahead of the rest. You could be the next Silver, for all I know.”
Meredith looked to the side. “That’s . . . unlikely.”
“Your self-doubt is unbecoming. In any case, you have six cycles to consider it.” With her long arms she reached behind Meredith’s ears, got hold of her hood and pulled it over her eyes as low as it could go. “Now, go downstairs and show this to Twenty-Three. You know your own coordinates, don’t you?”
“Good. You can input them yourself. Twenty-Three won’t look, there’s a reason she’s in charge of transportation.” She gave Meredith the torn piece of paper. “I must prepare for the move. Keep to yourself in the weeks to come and don’t deviate from your routine. If they question you, bore them stupid with that routine. How good a liar are you?”
“I . . . I don’t know, I’ve only ever lied to Mifraulde.”
“It doesn’t even matter. It’s the simplest thing. On the thirtieth day of Wane you did what you always do. That is your story.”
Meredith silently nodded, eyes lost in the middle distance. Eleven opened the door to the murmur and clatter that had taken over the building.
“What are you waiting for, then? Go.” She nudged Meredith’s back until they stood in the narrow hallway. Witches bustled up and down the corridor, many carrying personal belongings or portable furniture. In her daze Meredith started down the path, but stopped and turned shortly after.
Eleven stopped at the threshold into the meeting room and glanced over the shoulder.
“You’ll let me know, somehow?”
“He’s no longer your concern. Go home, Sixty-Two.”
The forewitch disappeared through the doorframe. Meredith looked on for a stupefied moment.
Operative Brena Sixty-Two, informant for the Riven Circle on the Head of the Coven, now field agent prospect, wordlessly shambled her way to the space-fold in the cellar.
DEAD STEMS FELL IN BUNCHES, one after another. They cracked and yielded to Meredith’s shears like sun-worn wheat to the scythe. She cut without rhythm, aiming each shear with deliberate precision.
On her knees she raked every husk to small piles, and every pile to a modest mound. Into the sack they went, more refuse for the hearth, more carbon for compost. She cleared every bit, until there was nothing but dark brown around patches of wilted gray.
Trowel and glove broke the soil and dug out roots. The trowel was a bit rickety, loose at the wooden handle. She could’ve used a shovel. She could’ve been done much faster. Meredith remained on her knees through the task, earth and dry sap pervading her nostrils to the exclusion of all else. It was a lengthy process, and her hands felt the strain, yet they didn’t grow weary. They had done similar things many times before.
It was all dead, all the way down to every tip. She might as well have left them in, they would never revive. She painstakingly sought each tiny root anyway, and dug them out until none remained. She hadn’t meant for them to die. She’d never meant for anything to die. The plants were not dead by her hand, and yet the guilt lumped in her chest all the same.
Meredith raked more leaves and twigs and pebbles, left nothing but damp soil. In sweeping motions she filled in the holes and smoothed the bumps, plowed and fluffed it nicely into loose clumps full of breath. The soil didn’t appreciate it at first, but she didn’t listen to the complaints. She couldn’t have new growth without pushing that big whiner out of its comfort zone.
From the compost heap she carted a good mound of rot and distributed it in orderly piles all through the patch, equally spaced. She tilled small holes, mixed in the little rot-piles, smoothed it back to soilbed, one after another after another. Her glove became soggy. Her nose was wrinkled. Every worthy goal required unpleasant tasks performed now and then.
The seeds lay on moist cloth, lined in parallel rows at the edge of the cobbles. The tiniest of sprouts poked their heads past the shells, each one with its own twist and bend, each one a bit different than the next. They seemed eager to break formation, eager to take root and feed and grow. Eager to fix the terrible wrongness upon this tiny parcel of land.
One by one the seeds went in, pushed sprout-down by a firm finger and a soft murmur. It helped them, hearing her voice before parting. They would try harder not to disappoint. It didn’t need to be words, just a hum and an unspoken wish to see them again. With the right motivation, even the most timid of sprouts could surprise you, push through and thrive against the odds.
Once every seed was tucked into their new home, she laid out the temperature control mesh, adjusted the settings and switched it on. It was the end of Wither, several moon cycles away from the warm season. These wouldn’t grow in cold soil; just making them germinate had been a challenge.
She straightened upright to assess her handiwork and give her lower back a much-needed respite. Her kidneys ached fiercely. The welts had been frightening to see in the mirror, but she would’ve had to be outright crippled not to come out to the garden. Too many issues in need of fixing. They’d constantly get in the way of her thoughts if they weren’t dealt with.
Meredith readjusted the mesh just so, covering every bit of the patch. She didn’t have a lot of experience with Earth strains, but she knew this one to be rare and fickle. It would take weeks to even see the first green. There would be uncertainty, and there would be worry.
They’d be worth the trouble, though. With proper care, they’d grow to be the most gorgeous thing in her garden.
The pruners called again from the cobblestone where she’d left them—they’d been calling for a while, now—and she finally decided to answer. With them in one hand and a bucket in the other she followed the short dirt path to the fence and the curlstalks taking over it. She nodded a respectful greeting at her one apple tree, who only bore fruit when the mood struck him, and as she passed it outgrowth of a variety of descriptions twined at her ankles. “Wait for your turn,” she admonished them, “you’re next.” Secretly she had no intention of getting to them today. It was a small lie, just to make them feel better.
The curlstalks had seemed so bold from a distance, but they cowered up close. In the first few snips Meredith quietly apologized for thwarting their efforts, but her heart wasn’t in it. Their advance had to be halted or they’d eventually claim the fence as their own, and that wouldn’t do. The fence belonged to her. She had built it. It was hers.
In an unplanned bout of mercy, she spared a few upstarts. They could keep going a little longer. Let them enjoy themselves, there was no harm in it. She even cupped her hand around the snips, so the young ones wouldn’t witness the carnage. The least she could do was protect them for as long as possible.
One by one the offending stalks were cut down and tossed to their mass grave. No-one would remember their names. Their sap stained the blades and made her glove a bit sticky, but it was fine, it would wash right off.
The bucket filled up, got dumped on the compost pile. Curly shoots that had reached too high and too fast for dreams they couldn’t have. Meredith silently mourned them.
She continued to hide the snips, but maybe she shouldn’t be so lenient with the up-and-comers. Maybe she should give them hard discipline and a clear view of what would happen if they continued on their doomed path. If she were in their place, what would she rather have? The awful truth or the hopeful lie?
It was the wrong question, of course. The right question was, what was more convenient for her? She was the witch, here. She was no plant. The plant’s feelings didn’t actually matter, as long as they did what she wanted. And besides, they might look innocent, but the curlstalks were known for being greedy and untrustworthy. They’d keep growing until the whole fence came down under the weight. Give them a toe and they’d crawl up your leg.
Another bucketful, dump it on the pile. It wasn’t all for naught, one way or another. By the time she was done, plump leaves and supple stems made for another green layer of future rot all on their own. Life cut short to grow better life. Ruthless, perhaps, but such was the way of things out here.
Now that the fence was under control, the hansels got her attention. They’d been singing their usual tune, one dissonant note for every fruit ready to be plucked from its leaf nest. She walked past timid cakepetals and the few empty rows of taters. The lush little hansel patch was abuzz with green and golden-green ripeness.
She sat on her heels—gracious ravens, her thighs hurt to stretch—and listened closely, taking her time to pinch and nudge the fuzzy fruits this way and that. It was important to get the timing right, with hansels. Pick them too early and they’d never develop the proper amount of juice or sweetness. Pick them too late, and you’d regret it the moment you took the first bite. If only she could get a better look at the colors. When had it grown so dark out here?
As soft and tentative as the voice was, it still made her jump. Looking up, Meredith found her apprentice standing right there, a few steps from the kitchen door. At that distance her latent power was a subtle thrum barely in sensory range.
“Janette,” she breathed. “It’s proper to announce yourself.”
“I . . . I did. Twice. I said dinner is ready.”
Meredith looked around as if coming out of a trance. The sun had almost faded from the skyveil, dusk was almost over. No wonder the garden had grown dark.
“Any problems?” she asked. “You didn’t burn the eggs this time, did you?”
“No, Mistress. It looks nice. I think you’ll be pleased.”
Meredith’s eyes lingered on the ripe hansels. They were vociferously complaining, still. Or, well, it was more like begging. They wouldn’t dare make demands.
They were right, though. It would be irresponsible to abandon them now.
“Did you cover it with a damp cloth and pat it down four times like I said?”
“Good. Come here, then.”
Tater omelets were better served cold, anyway.
With some reserve the girl strode into the garden. Meredith gestured for her apprentice to squat by her side. After wiping the stained pruners on her apron, she handed them over. “You’re picking hansels for dessert.”
“And some more besides. I’ll point at them, and you’ll snip right at the base.”
“This one. See the colour, with the golden hue at the top? It nearly glows, yeah? Here, squeeze it. A bit harder. What do you feel?”
“It’s soft, but firm inside.”
“That’s right. That’s the way you want them. Get that one, over there.”
Janette stretched to reach, winced and sucked in her breath.
“What’s the matter?”
A self-conscious smile curved her lips. “I’m still sore from the last time, it’s so embarrassing.”
“Hah. I’m sore too, if it’s any comfort.”
“No, it’s, um—actually, I’ve been meaning to ask. Last night, you seemed hurt. . . .”
Meredith pondered the issue for a moment. She had no recollection of getting to bed last night. Her one vague memory after the portal had faded was of endlessly fumbling at the door locks while fatigue bore down on her like a stone slab on her shoulders. It was all blank after that.
“Uh . . . I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Janette cocked her head, eyebrows knit. “You don’t remember what happened?”
“No, I do. I was exhausted, that’s all.”
The girl kept her eyes down as she fiddled with the gardening tool. “Mistress, you walked in and collapsed on your bed, and you just wouldn’t respond. You didn’t even close the front door. I was so worried.”
“Oh. I was very exhausted, you see.”
“I thought you were sick, so I pulled off your boots, and your robe was all torn up, and you had this harness-thing strapped to your back.”
Meredith clicked her tongue off her teeth. “My favourite robe.”
“And everything had blood on it.”
“Not mine. The blood, I mean.”
“Yeah, you said that. I asked.”
“But you just told me I wasn’t responding.”
“I know, Mistress.” The girl had widened her eyes as if to roll them, but she seemed to catch herself at the last moment. “You woke up when I pulled on the harness.”
“Are you sure? I don’t recall waking up.”
“You slurred a lot, and you said loads of swear words, all while fumbling with your straps.”
“Swear words? Doesn’t sound like me, I don’t like to curse.”
“Well, I think they were swear words. I . . . I probably shouldn’t repeat any of it, anyway.”
In a poignant moment of clarity, Meredith remembered uttering the words “shrub piddling pecker monger” amidst pained moans.
“No,” she agreed, “you probably shouldn’t.”
“So what happened? Were you attacked? Whose blood was that? Do we have enemies out there?”
“No, no no no, don’t you worry about it. I simply . . . I had something to take care of, and it got complicated. It’s nothing you should know about.”
“But you were hurt! I mean, are you hurt?”
“Just a few bruises.” She pointed again. “Get that one, it’s ready. The leaves will tell you, too. See how they curl away from it?”
Janette didn’t do it. She laid a hand on Meredith’s, instead. “Mistress, please. You looked really hurt. I saw. It’s been on my mind all day, I didn’t dare bring it up. I thought maybe you’d healed yourself, but I don’t think you did. Shouldn’t you go to . . . I don’t know, a hospital? Do we have hospitals?”
Meredith felt herself get flustered under the attention. She gently patted the girl’s hand, then just as gently guided it back to the pruners. “Healing house. And I don’t need it. You shouldn’t concern yourself with how much I hurt and what I do about it.” She nudged the tool in the hansel’s direction. “You only need to do as I say.”
“Don’t doubt my word, apprentice. Concentrate on learning. I’ll be fine.”
For a moment worry clung to Janette’s brow. The girl looked down at their touching hands. Her lips pursed. The soft crease smoothed out.
“Good. Your turn, now. Show me what you’ve learned.”
Janette observed and nudged and squeezed with singular devotion, every concern put aside in favor of doing well on the current lesson. Together they harvested a good dozen hansels that were just right, went on to groom the arc of windthrobs and the whittlenut shrub, and carefully selected the best quality mellowvane for the order due tomorrow. Meredith reserved a particularly shrewd bud for Yurena.
Dusk became night and time flitted by under crescent moonlight and courtyard coil, witch and apprentice embroiled in tending to most of the rebellious growth—the garden wasn’t all that big, but it was diverse and tightly-packed. Dinner was all but forgotten as Janette learned of proper watering procedures, selective pruning, optimal compost layering, differences between wane and wilt, healthy leaf-to-bud ratios . . . she learned, most important of all, that a thriving garden required dedication and attention to detail. Just like magic, the Mistress was keen to point out. She felt terribly clever for it.
All the while, Meredith’s pain grew worse in spurts. When at last the time came to go inside, she straightened up with the fruit-laden bucket in hand, only to instantly regret it. The flare-up was intense enough to freeze her in place, a groan in her throat and a grimace on her features.
Without a moment’s thought Janette was by her side, bracing her arm and shoulder for support. “I can carry that,” she offered, voice only slightly anxious. With her free hand she gripped the bucket’s handle like it was poisoning her mentor on contact.
“I can do it,” Meredith countered. It was mostly a gasp.
“Y– yes, I know, but I should do it. You’re the Mistress, I should do the labour, yeah?”
Meredith looked at her apprentice. The girl’s corner-of-the-eye gaze was an undisguised plea. Clearly she’d only been pretending not to notice the abundance of winces and sharp inhales throughout the evening.
“Please let me carry this for you.”
It was more reaction than decision: Meredith let go of the burden and leaned in. What was the harm in it, really?
Janette stuck close as they walked back into the kitchen, never withdrawing her support.
“Yes, that’s me. W– what―”
“My apologies for interrupting your work, denizen. I am Inquisitor Bohm-Sajjan. We are in the midst of an investigation and your answers could help. Don’t worry about lost work, your time has been cleared for questioning by the taskmaster.”
“I . . . I’m not in trouble, am I?”
“No. Not yet. You only need to answer truthfully.”
“Of course, yes. This is about that filthy stunt, isn’t it? Did he truly escape? Please tell me you’ve caught him, I’ve been flinching at shadows since―”
“No, that is false. Who is spreading this rumour?”
“Uh . . . I overheard in the restroom, I don’t know who said it.”
“Escape from the holding pens is impossible, do you understand? The object of this investigation is none of your concern. Answer my questions and cease the spread of false information at once.”
“Y– yes . . . understood. I’m sorry, I’m a bit nervous. I’ll help in any way I can, Inquisitor.”
“Good. First off, where were you a span after dayturn on the last day of Wane?”
“That’s . . . last Naughtday? Or the day before that?”
“The very early morning of Naughtday, four days ago.”
“Oh. I just . . . I was sleeping. Like any other day at that time.”
“Last Naughtday . . . yes, I was home all day, I slept in late and spent the evening―”
“Quiet while I take notes. Answer only what you are asked, denizen.”
“What did you do before then?”
“Um. I worked here all morning until twelve, then I spent the rest of the day in my garden. I went to sleep at nineteen.”
“Hm. I don’t suppose you have a witness for any of this.”
“N– no. Well, only work, Inquisitor. I live alone and the neighbours can’t see through the fence. Someone might have seen me arrive at my doorstep.”
“I see. This ‘filthy stunt’ you mention . . . number Four-Thirteen, is it? Describe the last time you saw him.”
“It was walking out that door, after he had the gall to disrespect me and my coworker. He was mandated to report for disciplinary action. I hope you guys showed him who’s in charge.”
“I’m an Inquisitor, I don’t concern myself with petty discipline. Incidentally, I did have the displeasure of interrogating him later, after he went from misconduct to crime. Your taskmaster informed me of your interest in the goods with which he was caught.”
“Well, yes . . . I was concerned I might become a suspect since―”
“Your reasons were already noted and taken into consideration. Now, did Four-Thirteen ever approach you or try to engage you in any way while he was working for this station?”
“No, thank the ravens. I’d have reported him immediately if he had.”
“Has a coworker or anyone you know promoted assisting the humans, making their workload easier, granting them freedoms or rights or expressed sympathy in any way?”
“I’d never associate with anyone who did, and I’d also report them immediately.”
“Hm. Did anyone you know engage Four-Thirteen in a way not prescribed by your work needs?”
“No, of course not. Well, actually. . . .”
“Please understand I don’t mean this as an accusation of any kind, but . . . Devalka would often taunt and humiliate him for no reason other than her own amusement. I can’t disagree with the sentiment, but it always struck me as a mite unprofessional. Personally, the less we interact with those animals, the better.”
“Hm. Your coworker made no effort to conceal her sadistic abhorrence for them. You merely confirm her story.”
“Good, I didn’t want to get her in trouble, I just mentioned it since―”
“Fine, yes. One last question. Have you ever seen this before?”
“Huh. It’s . . . some kind of fancy pen?”
“No. It’s dart ammunition for a semiautomatic one-handed crossbow. Does anyone you know own one?”
“Not to my knowledge, Inquisitor. I thought . . . aren’t all weapons registered and traceable to their owners?”
“Yes, all legally purchased weapons are, but not custom-made ammunition. The owner is obviously a criminal, denizen.”
“Oh, yes, of course, that makes sense. I’m sorry, I wouldn’t even know where to get one in the first place.”
“Hm. Make sure it stays that way. These are dangerous tools only the proficient should handle.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Inquisitor.”
“I suppose that’ll be all for now. I might return as the investigation develops. Contact us through your taskmaster if you remember anything that might be useful.”
“I won’t hesitate. I wish I could be of more help.”
“Stop spreading false rumours, then. One Coven, denizen.”
“TODAY,” THE MISTRESS casually declared, “you will learn the basics of magic.”
Janette nearly dropped the plates she was taking to the sink. She turned to look at her tutor, good eye nearly as wide as the dessert saucers she carried. “I’m ready now?”
Meredith couldn’t hold back a smile. “You’ve been for some time, but there were other, more practical skills you needed to learn first. I’ve also been testing your patience and dedication. You’ve done very well, apprentice.”
The pride and sheer pleasure in Janette’s features filled Meredith with an altogether confusing warmth. In all likelihood it had nothing to do with the girl and everything to do with the jellybun indulgence she’d picked up for dessert on her way home.
“Come into the living room once you get those dishes clean. I’ll be preparing for the lesson.”
Her ward practically bounced with joy as she walked to the sink. Meredith left the kitchen with a glass of water in hand and pulled out a much-handled book from the shelf by her bedroom door. She reached for the satchel hanging on the doorknob and sorted through its contents.
A tenth-span later, Janette walked in to find her mentor sitting on the sofa, watching the newly-stoked hearth. An assortment of items rested on the table in front of her: the worn and aged tome; a thinner pamphlet, five pages clipped together; two ball-point pens atop a spiral-bound notebook; a black band of elastic fabric, with tiny clasps at both ends and many-shaped prongs protruding from a metal centerpiece; the glass of water; and a handful of glass beads, like flattened marbles.
“Come sit by me,” Meredith said.
The girl gawked at the items with unrestrained wonder. Every trace of her increasingly sleep-deprived nights had vanished. Her breath was quicker than normal by the time she sat down.
“Relax, Janette. This will take some time.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so excited. I’ve dreamed about this all my life.”
Meredith chuckled. “It’ll probably disappoint you, then.”
“I doubt that very, very much.”
“We’ll see. Alright, let’s start.” She took a deep breath and let it out completely before continuing. “First I’ll tell you what magic isn’t, because I know you have a head full of fancy ideas. Magic isn’t a cloud of energy you command with a wag of your fingers. It isn’t throwing ingredients into a cauldron to curse your neighbours or spread the plague. It isn’t rattling rat bones and pigeon entrails to predict the future, though some of the tribals might still tell you otherwise. Magic can’t read your thoughts or sense your intent. It doesn’t . . . you seem troubled already.”
“Well, no, I just, I thought—what of all the witching lore? Like curses, and love potions? The flying broom and the bubbling cauldrons full of gross things. . . .”
“Thogwash, all of it, either apocryphal twaddle or exaggeration. Anecdotes run wild. Do you realise how difficult it is to balance yourself on a stick? And it’s a horrible surface to run wordpaths on. We’ll fly on a solid platform with safeguards, thank you.”
“Oh! So you do fly about?” The girl appeared greatly relieved. “I’ve never seen you. I was afraid there’d be no flying.”
“Remember the harness strapped to my back? That was the holster for my dais. I don’t like using it, though. There are so many rules about it, you need to keep an up-to-date license, and I don’t travel far, or much at all. I’d rather use my own two legs, they work just fine.”
“You have to get a license?”
“Of course. You need to know the rules, mid-air collisions are a horrible thing.”
“Of course, yes. That makes sense. And how about healing? Is there healing magic?”
“Hm, only to some extent. There’s an alchemical compound that can be poured on open wounds to heal them much faster. Um . . . broken bones can be set and fused, too. Localised stasis is used instead of sedation, and sterilising surgical instruments is not ever an issue. Overall we rely on biology for the most part, though we do have excellent salves for pain and faster metabolism.”
“What is it, why’d you ask? Are you sick?”
“N– no, never mind.”
“You have to tell me if you’re sick.”
“I’m not sick, I swear. I was just hoping there’d finally be some way to fix. . . .” She vaguely gestured at her face. “You know?”
Meredith tilted her head and looked closely. “I don’t see anything wrong. Fix what?”
The girl’s cheeks were flustered red. “My eye, Mistress. You must have noticed. Everyone notices, even if they pretend not to.”
The fold on Meredith’s brow deepened. Her head remained cocked. “Whyever would you want rid of your witchmark?”
“My . . . what?”
“Your witchmark. The wandering eye? Oh, but of course you wouldn’t know. It’s a mark of prestige, apprentice. A sign of power, something to be proud of. Tremmel herself had it.”
Janette stared blankly for a while, each pupil lost in a different region of empty space. She slowly brought fingertips to the skin below the half-lidded eye. “A mark of power. . . .”
“Indeed. Wandering, bleached or oddly coloured eyes, pointed teeth, deathly-white or dark-as-night skin, morbid corpulence, black tooth rot, pockmarks, blotches, hairy moles and warts and a number of other things—all witchmarks telling of a worthy brood. There’s nothing wrong with you, quite the contrary.”
The girl didn’t seem to know how to take it. She just kept blinking, breathing sharply through her nose, eyes watery for some reason.
Meredith turned her attention back to the items on the table.
“Alright,” she said, “if you’re done with questions, we have our magic lesson to continue. And none of it will include a love potion or muttering over eyeball soup.”
Janette’s daze broke with a chuckle. She sniffled and dabbed her eyelids with the back of her hand. “It does sound quite silly if you put it like that. . . .”
“Are you sure you’re not sick? I know for a fact humans are full of diseases and allergies waiting to happen. I don’t know how you even survive.”
“I’m not sick, Mistress. I’m . . . I’m better than ever.” Despite her assurances, she sniffled again. “I’m ready to learn. I want to learn everything from you, I want to be just like you.”
“Oh, well, um. That’s exactly what we’re here for, isn’t it? Yes, indeed.”
There it was, that warmth again. Probably just acid reflux, the stir fry had been rather spicy.
“Where did I leave off, again?”
“Magic isn’t what I think it is.”
“Aha, yes. Magic, real magic, stems from incantation, because magic is in truth a language: the language of the Universe. Each idea, each concept is contained in a specific Source word. You can write them phonetically, like in this book, or they can be written in Source glyphs, and that’s what you saw on the insulation panels—it’s the basis of artificing. Much like I chain the words of the English language to give you a command, we can chain these concepts to manipulate reality. It sounds simple, doesn’t it?”
“So far, Mistress.”
“Well, it’s anything but. To cast a spell you need to understand language, infusion and sourcing. We’re starting with language.” Meredith gestured at the glass beads on table before them. “Now, suppose I want to use magic to move one bead, and only one bead, out of the pile and across to the edge of this table. How would you phrase that command?”
“A command? Like I’m talking to someone?”
“Yes. In plain English.”
Janette pursed her lips, looking at the objects in front of her. Though her eyes were still a bit red, all of her attention had returned to the lesson at hand. “Mmmm. . . .”
“It truly can’t be so complicated.”
“No, but . . . I know it’s a trick question, so I want to be clever about it.”
Meredith laughed softly. “Just saying as much is clever enough. Simply answer, it’ll move the lesson along.”
“Okay. I guess, ‘please move a bead to the edge of the table’?”
“Yes, that’s a fine example to work with, thank you. Let’s translate your command to the Source language. Here.” Meredith used one finger to push the much-handled book until it rested in front of her apprentice. “You’ve used a dictionary before, I presume.”
“No, not a paper one, Mistress.” Janette was looking at it as if it were the holiest of scriptures. She ran her fingers over the in-relief lettering of the cover. Concept Compendium. The edition number was at the bottom-right corner.
“One hundred and thirteenth edition?”
“New concepts are discovered to this day. Our knowledge is always evolving. This edition is outdated by at least a dozen, actually.”
Janette glanced at her mentor and reverently lifted the cover. After a blank page, she encountered the set of verses that Meredith had recited every morning of every day at Brena’s academy:
“What does this mean?”
“Ah, just the tenets of the masquerade, it’s not important right now. Get on with it, we’ve much to do still.”
“Yes, of course, sorry.” Janette flipped some pages. She passed a lengthy introduction and a few lists. “Where should I start?”
“It’s in alphabetic order. There’s a notch for every letter. The first half is for English to Source, look up ‘move.’”
More pages flipping. “Goodness, this print is so tiny.”
“I suppose there’s no such thing as the internet here?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
Janette chuckled as her index finger traveled down entries. “That might be the strangest thing I’ve heard so far. Here it is!”
“Read it aloud.”
“‘Move.’ Um, I don’t know what this stands for.”
“That’s just codes for compatible modifiers to this type of concept. Don’t worry about it for now.”
“Okay. ‘Move:’ code, code . . . ‘reg.’ stands for regular, I suppose? ‘Relevant variants: displace, relocate, transfer.’ Fff . . . fen? Fen is the translation? What are the squiggly lines?”
“They’re called ‘brogues’ and denote the proper diction for every sound. They’re very important. These tell you it’s pronounced ₣ĕṅ.” She muted the f to almost silent, subtly dipped the pitch of the eh sound during its second half, and finished with a hard, dry n.
“It’s of no concern at this moment, we’re going to put it all down on paper first. Find ‘bead’ now, see what it says.”
Janette flipped more pages. “Mmm . . . ah, there it is. Wow, it’s so long. Shal, uh, g– grah . . . I don’t even know, what are those symbols?”
Meredith had a knowing smile on her lips. “They need to be replaced by whichever qualities your particular bead has. You see, ‘bead’ is an indeterminate concept, and its Source translation has never been discovered. All we can do is approximate. For these, we’ll say they’re the size of your left hand’s index distal phalange.”
“There are very few basic names left to find. If I’m honest with you, I believe ‘bead’ has been purposely withheld just so the classic lesson doesn’t have to change. What are you waiting for, apprentice? Get to work on that translation.”
They spent the next third-span converting the command to Source language, Meredith explaining grammatical rules as they went. Incantation clauses always led with an imperative and had to be nested in a specific order. Qualifiers apostrophed before nouns and should be combined in notation without spaces. Positional specifications like “beyond” and “atop” and “aligned with” apostrophed after their noun in headache-inducing sequences. A terminus clause always closed the incantation and the shape of it depended on the phonetics of the last few syllables.
“Nothing should be left up for interpretation,” Meredith said. “Which bead, exactly? We don’t want to move a bead that’s three kilometres downfroth, but the one on this table in front of you—and there could be any number of other tables ahead, so you must specify a range. Also, we want the bead to move, but at what speed, and how far, and for how long? If you don’t have it into account, you might create a supersonic projectile, or worse. And specifying these parameters isn’t trivial, because what’s a metre to the Universe? What’s a gram, a quarter-span? These are arbitrary units, they mean nothing outside our culture. Everything must be denoted in relative terms.”
“This is like word mathematics,” Janette groaned.
“I warned you it might disappoint you.”
“Oh, no, I’m not disappointed, I mean, there’s apostrophes everywhere! There’s nothing more magical than that. It’s just . . . is this truly the easiest to start with? It’s so overwhelming.”
Meredith smiled. “That it is, and in fact that’s a vital part of the lesson. Crafting magic is difficult, and this is why you’ll continue handling brooms and washing dishes with both hands in the sink, even if you master every incantation there is. You will spend three span carefully composing a spell to move one and only one of these beads. . . .” She pressed her index finger onto one of them. “When you could just do this.” She dragged it to the other side of the table.
“Guhh, three span?”
“Hm. You’re quite bright. Maybe only two.”
“But this spell is already researched, yes?”
“Of course. Your point being?”
“Well, we could maybe skip to the casting part. . . .”
Meredith was genuinely taken aback. “And what would be the worth of that? I thought you were willing to work for your magic, apprentice.”
“Y– yes, absolutely! I was just hoping―”
Knock knock knock-knock-knock!
They turned their heads at once to the front door. It was only a moment later that the dead room clicked shut, and a quick glance verified that tome, pen and notebook were gone from the table. This girl was as fast as a flitglow scampering into the bush.
Meredith sighed and let whoever it was knock for a second time.
“Be right there,” she called in sing-song. She groaned to her feet, one hand on the armrest, the other bracing her back. The bruises were slowly fading, but it was still a pain to get around.
A look through the peephole as she undid the locks showed Anna’s small frame, fidgeting while she waited. Her sunken eyes were particularly dark through the distorted view, and her drawn-up cowl made her head look like a skull peeking from under a blanket.
Anna Brena-Jorel-Sauter got on her tip-toes and almost touched the glass of the peephole with her eyeball. “Has it ever been a criminal that knocks at your door?”
“There’s always a first time.” Meredith tried to swing the door open, but it only moved to a crack.
“I must be dangerous. I don’t even warrant an open door anymore.”
“Hold on.” She looked down. Something was stuck under the doorjamb. A folded piece of paper?
Anna huffed. “Should I stick my hand in through the crack so you can prickle my thumb for a blood sample?”
“I should start doing that. The door is stuck, wait a mite.”
Meredith bent down and pulled on the paper, wiggling it out with some effort. Somebody had pressed it in from the outside, it looked like, and must have done it after she’d arrived home. Puzzled, she dropped it in a pocket for later.
“There.” She opened the door wide. “You didn’t have to come, I was going out later tonight.”
“I wouldn’t have come if you’d managed to bring it to the manufactory like you were supposed to, hollowhead.”
“I know, I’m sorry. But you still didn’t have to come.”
“I want it now. Hurry it up, I can’t be seen standing here.”
Meredith looked at the three pouches and jar on the doorside shelf and picked the pouch tagged “A.J.” She handed it to the diminutive witch. “That’ll be Eleven P and five.”
“That’s some fancy lettering there. Got too much time on your hands?”
She looked at the tag—at Janette’s overly elaborate capital A and twisty, flowery J. There was an arc under the dots, mimicking a smiling face. “Just developing my artistic side.”
“Yes, such a lover of the fine arts you are. How shrewd is this,” she asked without inflection, holding up the bag.
“It’s the shrewdest I have.”
“It better be the shrewdest.”
“Here’s the coin, and your old pouch.” Anna shook it, producing a merry jingle. “And something extra inside because I liked what was in it.”
“Oh. Joys and cheers to that.”
“Joys and cheers, yeah. I heard you talking in there. You have visitors? Or are you losing your sanity already? Your brood has a history.”
Meredith stared for a moment before pocketing the jingly pouch. “I was talking to my familiar.”
“Your familiar.” She stopped fidgeting long enough to look nonplussed. She rolled her eyes. “You mean your spoiled pet thog, don’t you?”
“Desmond is an excellent familiar.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Well, don’t let me hold up that conversation any longer, you must have so many issues to discuss.” Anna tucked the order deep inside her robe and turned to leave. “I’m gone. I didn’t get this from you. I was never here.”
“As always. Wary’s worth!”
The witch waved dismissively without looking back, energetic steps taking her through the eerie garden and out the mangled fence. She turned her head and raised an eyebrow as she passed it, but refrained from yelling an admonishment. Anna mounted her gorgeously lustrous dais and flew off in a heartbeat.
Only then did it occur to Meredith that anyone flying over her house could have seen her “apprentice” tending the garden this past week.
She closed the door, leaned against it and blew out her pent-up breath. Quickly she stepped over to the cracked-open window and shut it all the way, rolling eyes at herself for all her careless indiscretions. “One day your luck will run out,” she muttered.
The new weight in her pocket reminded her of the other item she’d stowed there. Meredith pulled out the doorstopper and spent an inordinate length of time picking at its elaborate fold. Why hadn’t they simply used the drop-box?
Her eyes were wide and blinking profusely by the last sentence. Meredith reread the creased note repeatedly, heat burning in her chest. She read it a fifth, a sixth time. Exhaling a tremulous breath, she folded the note, tucked it in one of her robe’s inner pockets and walked away from the front door.
She unfolded and read the note a seventh time, standing by the lab’s entrance. Her hand lingered on the door handle. Could she afford to cut the lesson short and make a trip to the library?
Meredith abruptly shook the idea out of head, crumpling the paper-full of temptation back into her robe. “Concentrate, you braden shlug.”
She could sense Janette perking up, paying attention to her approach. Meredith knocked. “It’s―” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “It’s safe.”
After some muffled steps key turned in lock, and Janette swung the door open. The worn tome was in her hand, index finger wedged between pages.
“I hope you don’t mind I took this,” she said while getting out of the way.
“No, no, that’s fine. Good initiative.” Meredith stepped inside. “I do need to ask you not to be so creative with the pouch tags. Try to emulate my handwriting, it’s a sign of efficiency and professionalism.”
“Aw. Of course, Mistress.”
“Also, we’ll be having all lessons in here or in the kitchen from now on, and you’re forbidden from going to the garden without my express permission. It occurs to me I’ve been careless lately. Over time, it’s easy to forget you’re not supposed to be sensed in any way. We’d both be in serious trouble if you were.” She paused briefly. “I know it must seem like pointless tradition to you, but it helps keep history fresh in our minds.”
“Oh, I don’t think that at all. It’s smart! Remember what’s happened so it never happens again. I get it.”
“Well, good.” Meredith stopped by the bed, where pen and paper rested on white linen. Several lines of would-be incantations were written down, most of them messily marked or annotated toward refinement. “Wouldn’t you rather use the desk?”
“Um. I suppose I should have.”
She looked back at the girl. “But?”
Janette cringed and stammered. “I always did my homework on the bed, so . . . if I use the bed, it feels more like . . . like this is my room. I’m sorry, I know I must earn it, I was only fantasising.”
Meredith kept her expression stern. She looked around pensively, eyes stopping on the feather cot in the corner, the lone bookcase half full with trinkets and supplies, the small writing desk and the wall-spanning workbench on the far end of the room that housed the assembled soundstill.
“You worked hard to put this together. Do you like how it turned out, apprentice?”
“It’s lovely, Mistress.”
“Lovely? I’m aware a young human girl would rather have a more colourful environment.”
Janette shrugged. “I never cared all that much.” A brief pause. “The shelf could use a dragon or two.”
“Hah.” Meredith paced about some more, wistfully regarding her surroundings. She stopped by the workbench and looked out the window above it for a good while. A part of her knew she was enjoying this a bit too much.
“We’ll see what can be done about that,” she finally said, “since you’ll be spending most of your time in here from now on. You may move in.”
The apprentice let out a delighted yelp and nearly tackled Meredith to the floor. “Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you!”
Mistress Meredith broke out in laughter as she braced the wall with her one free hand. “Alright, fine, get it all out.” She patted the girl’s shoulder and fixed her hair. “You can let go now.”
“Thank you so much, Mistress. I promise to always keep it clean and tidy, and I won’t touch any of the stuff on the shelves without permission.”
“We’ll eventually get to many of those. You’ll be taking apart some of them, even. For now, we need to focus on the foundations of your knowledge. Go fetch everything and move it to this desk.”
“How in Tarkai’s charred hovel did she work this out so fast?”
Near the top was their joint effort, a full paragraph that was the almost-complete incantation. Janette had kept going, carrying it to its predictable conclusion, though she’d used the wrong terminus clause. Meredith wasn’t surprised the girl had figured out this much.
But then she’d crossed out the alignment clause and written a different one, realizing she could shorten the spell significantly by obviating the table’s position. In the next line she’d worked around using the table altogether, effectively cutting the incantation in half. She’d shortened it further by omitting relative distances in favor of trajectory intersections—she’d simply have to point with her finger as she cast—which also let her imply which bead would move out of the pile, as opposed to pinpointing its location with words. There were a few misused terms, two flaws in the use of modifiers and a lot of misdrawn brogues, but the core concept of the spell was viable.
Janette walked in with arms full of items and a pocket bulging with beads. Her mentor looked up from the paper. “This is impressive. I was at the door for hardly a tenth-span.”
“Oh! So it’s good? I was afraid I might be scribbling gibberish.”
“There are a number of mistakes, but you have the basics down. We can finish it later. Now come, give me the water and set up here.”
Meredith leaned against the desk and took slow, deep breaths as she watched her apprentice lay the items in a neat line on the desk. The thought of embarrassing herself on this part was mortifying. She took a small sip, moistening a suddenly-dry throat.
“Knowing the language is vital,” Meredith began, “but it isn’t enough. In order to cast any spell, you need to know about infusion.”
There it was again, that hungry shine in the girl’s eyes. She looked ready to devour Meredith’s next words like they were caramel-coated nuggets of wisdom.
“Infusion entails channeling your power into your voice so it resonates with the properties of reality. This is an oversimplification, but think of it as speaking in the proper volume and tone so the Universe will do as you say.”
Janette took a moment to parse the sentence. “Like . . . a prayer? Is the Universe our god?”
“No, don’t be silly. Well, some still indulge in eldritch worship, especially down in Tarkis, but it’s all nonsense. Infusion is more like . . . taking your interaction with reality to a deeper level. Or maybe a higher level.” Meredith waved her hand dismissively. “It doesn’t matter, truly. I never concerned myself much with the philosophical side of things, and neither should you. Us artificers focus entirely on the practical application of spells. Let the self-important windbags at the conservatories talk themselves to sleep on metamagic.”
Janette returned her mentor’s conspiratorial smile, but she was still visibly curious.
“Maybe I have a book about it lying around here somewhere,” Meredith added, “but you won’t have much spare time to read it, I’ll make sure of that. You can distract yourself with such things when you have a lab of your own.”
The mention of the wonderful future to come brightened Janette’s face. “Of course, Mistress.”
“Right. Well. To pour magical power into your voice, you must learn how to draw it out. How easily you do so depends on your attunement. There are rigorous definitions for all these terms, but it’s really all interchangeable—power, attunement, magical talent and so on. You know what I’m talking about, yes? You must be aware of it by now, probably you’ve been for a long time. There’s this pent-up presence inside you that’s like―”
“Like a fire that burns without heat. Ooh, I get it now.”
Meredith quirked an eyebrow. “That sounds familiar.”
The girl hesitated. “It’s . . . from Gallia’s Burning Desire. ‘A fire that burns without heat, it yearns for release yet bows at your feet.’ I found it in the sanctioned shelf,” she hurried to add.
“Oh. Um. Yes, well. There are a lot of embellishments in that book, and it’s all mostly fiction, you understand. Many artistic licenses.”
“Ah, I see.”
For some reason Janette’s face had become dreadfully flustered.
“Are you well?” Meredith asked.
“Yeah, yes, I’m fine, I just thought. . . .”
“It’s kind of an adult book? Like . . . really adult.” Her good eye wandered everywhere that wasn’t up at Meredith. “I thought maybe you’d left it there by mistake.”
“Hm. It’s just a silly love story, I thought nothing of it. Oh, is it forbidden for human females to engage in such things? I’ll admit I haven’t kept up with your customs.”
Janette’s ears looked like they could’ve been used as hand warmers. “No, they do. Some do. It’s just—there were lots of details, and I hadn’t, uh . . . can we please get back to magic now?”
“Of course, yes. Drawing out your power, pouring it into your voice. That pent-up sensation, that fire you mention? It’s scattered all over your body, in your flesh. You must gather it and push it forth. It’s a matter of focus.”
“But how? I’ve tried so hard, I truly have. Sometimes it felt like something was happening, but . . . I only got a headache.”
“Ah, that’s because there’s another half to it. You must give your voice the proper shape. It doesn’t come naturally.”
The words I don’t understand might as well have been written on the girl’s forehead. Meredith’s chuckle was painstakingly casual. “My, I haven’t shown you, have I? I should have started with that.”
She cleared her throat again and breathed deep until she felt ready. After a glance at the expectant girl she breathed some more, taking yet another sip of water.
“This is what infusion sounds like.”
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in, constrict and distend the throat in a very specific manner, channel forth her trickle of latent power.
She sustained a wordless note that reverberated beyond simple airwaves, as if her voice had folded over itself and split down seven different paths. She wavered slightly at the start, but remained strong for a good millispan. The expression of her modest power, raw and purposeless, dispersed around her in an intangible cloud that quickly vanished.
Janette gaped at her teacher in astounded reverence. “How do you do that?”
Relief and satisfaction swelled in her chest. Meredith slid the stack of clipped papers toward her pupil.
“A Practical Guide to Infusion?” Janette read.
“You’ll need to study it thoroughly. I’ll get you started with the classic initiation exercises, then it’ll only be a matter of practice.”
Janette was leafing through it. “I’ve never heard anyone do that with their voice.”
Meredith nodded. “You need both the vocal cord training and the attunement channeling, otherwise it only comes out as a pitiful croak.” She reached for the choker on the desk. “This will help, lift your chin.”
With both hands she stretched the flat band around Janette’s throat, ensuring the metal piece and all of its prongs made proper contact. The girl winced at the pinpricks. Meredith smiled, knowing exactly how unpleasant it was. She’d worn one of these for well over a year.
“Now,” the Mistress said, “this is a test. I passed this test, as every witch must. I hope you are ready.”
Never had she seen a face so quickly overtaken by anxious determination.
“It’s quite simple,” she continued as she latched the clasp. “When I tighten this, you won’t be able to breathe anymore—not unless you channel your power forth. If you fail, you will die. Understand? Hold still, now.”
Janette gasped and recoiled; even her lazy eye widened. “What—”
“It’s a joke, I’m joking! It’s perfectly safe, see?” She pulled on the elastic fabric, which snapped back to Janette’s skin with a faint pap. “Nothing to worry about.”
The girl touched it warily, though she was already giggling through quick breaths. “Mistress! That was so mean!”
“You looked about to faint.”
“I believed every word! I didn’t know you could be so mean. . . .”
“Ha! I’m a witch. I am wicked. And don’t you ever forget it.” She adjusted the metal piece, much to Janette’s discomfort. The girl’s pulse thumped under Meredith’s fingers, though it didn’t quite race. “Truly now, all you need to fear is a bit of a rash, if you wear it for long. How does it feel? You can breathe, yeah?”
She rolled her eyes self-consciously. “I can breathe, Mistress. Though it does press into my throat. It’s hard to speak.”
Indeed, Janette’s voice now faltered to whispers in places.
“Right. It’s supposed to. It helps your voice box take the proper shape. Incantations require strength and confidence.”
Janette sniffed a short chuckle. “No wonder my magic never worked. It takes more than waving your arms and wishing for something really hard.”
“Ah, and you benefit from centuries of research and terrible trial and error. Our version of magic is much more refined and formal than it used to be. Imagine how difficult it was in ancient times, with all the primitive ritual and dark worship—do you see why there’s so much superstition around the craft?”
“I do, Mistress.”
“Good. Now you know about infusion. Only sourcing remains, and it’s fairly straightforward. You see, energy must come from somewhere. You can’t simply create it at your fingertips.”
Janette lit up like she’d found the way out of a terribly confusing maze. “I know about that, conservation of energy! That’s funny, Ms. Jamison covered it in her last lesson.”
“My science teacher. Well, she used to be my science teacher. She was nice.”
Meredith frowned. “You didn’t tell me you served a different Mistress before.”
“Oh, no, no, teacher as in, you know, school? They put us all in a classroom and everyone listens to the lesson and so on?”
“Ah, an Instructor, of course, I see. Why was she nice? I suppose she didn’t thump you as hard as the others?”
“Maybe she spared you the scalding water. I had an Instructor that had a few favourites, and my brood-sister never got scalded.”
“That’s dreadful! Your teachers really did that?”
“I know, it was so unfair. Everyone should get scalded equally, they’re not supposed to play favourites.”
“That’s not what I—”
Meredith waved the issue away. “We’re never going to finish if we keep getting side-tracked. Like I was saying, every spell needs a source. You follow so far?”
“Y– yeah. Yes, Mistress.”
“Good, back to the beads, now. If you want to push one bead with your hand, you will have to use your own energy to do so, correct?” Meredith demonstrated as she spoke, pushing a bead back and forth with one finger.
“There are only a few sources of energy I can use to move this bead: my own, that of some contraption, and little else. I have to touch it somehow, I’m limited by proximity, physical state, the laws of energy transference and so on. Yeah?”
Janette nodded, hanging on to every word.
“Magic isn’t nearly as limited. The spell still needs a source of energy, but the laws are flexible on where it comes from. You can specify a nearby fire, the wind outside, the thermal reserves below, the biochemical stores of things around you—or your own, which could lead to a fatal thaumaturgic drain. And yes, you can source living things, animals, humans, even other witches whose attunement can’t match yours. Attunement Duels are a bit of a sport, very popular in Tremmelton.”
And dormitories full of juvenile witches eager to prove themselves at the expense of their peers, Meredith didn’t add.
“Oh, wow. Isn’t that dangerous?”
“No, no, the spell is minor, so the loser only gets very tired. But you’re right to be concerned: weaponising sourcing against other witches is malfeasance of the first order. You’ll become a Dire Criminal on the spot, regardless of context. The witches of old called it a drain hex. A truly horrific death.”
The apprentice continued nodding, properly daunted.
“Glad you understand. Now, like any transference of energy, it needs a conduit. You create that conduit, you become it—and that’s the bottleneck in the power of an incantation, given an infinite source. Many factors affect the efficiency of the transference, like distance and type of energy and conversion rates . . . a fair bit of mathematics involved.” She smiled. “We won’t be going into much of it, you don’t need to make that face.”
“Oh, s– sorry. I don’t like it much.”
“That’s alright. I don’t like it either. The basics are quite intuitive: closer is better, and the same energy type between source and target is most efficient. But no matter how much you optimise, there’s always something lost along the way, because no energy transference is one hundred percent efficient. The seepage contributes to the aura you’ll sense every time magical power is channeled.”
“That’s what it was, just now? When you . . . infused?”
“Mm, not exactly. What you sensed was my latent power, brought forth by infusion. It dispersed without being used, so you sensed it more strongly, differently than you would’ve if I’d cast a spell. Understand?”
“I– I think so? Yes. I think I do.”
“Tell me if you don’t understand, it’s fine to ask questions.”
“No, I understand, yeah.”
“Alright, well, that’s about it, then.” Meredith reached for the notebook and placed it in front of her apprentice, pointing. “The source is specified at the very beginning of the spell. You could leave it out for something as minor as this, but it’s always safe to include it.”
“What happens if you don’t?”
“Ah, I was getting to that. Anything could happen. Twelve times out of thirteen the energy will be sourced through the path of least resistance, but there’s a significant degree of stochastash . . . s– stochaseticy. . . .” Meredith slowed down to spell every syllable: “Stochasticity. Yes.”
“I don’t know that word.”
“It’s a fancy way of saying ‘randomness.’ Reality is connected in ways we sometimes can’t predict, and a completely unexpected source might be tapped—from the stove, to the flowlines, to the fat under your skin. It’s the same way for the wording of your spells: if you’re not specific enough, most of the time the spell will work on whatever is closest, or most convenient. But not always, and that’s why we’re careful. It’s part of why we isolated this room, it limits possible sources and targets to the confines of these walls.”
“Oh. Makes sense.” Janette looked to be re-reading the last iteration of the written spell, perhaps already puzzling out how to include a suitable source. She lifted her head. “So all those magical items you have―”
“Artifacts. Or trinkets.”
“Those artifacts, do they all need a source when you use them?”
“Yes . . . yes, they do. In one way or another.”
She hadn’t planned to mention the spark just yet, but inspiration struck. Best to get it out of the way now.
“The cheap ones will require you to have a source ready,” she carried on, “while the low-power ones can function through whatever environmental source is available, or your own body heat, and many don’t even require you to know any magic to use them. Most powerful artifacts, though, especially the dangerous ones, will be built to obey only certain infused commands. And those artifacts, the ones that move mountains, and bend light, and shape reality? For those . . . you need the spark.”
“The spark? Like, electricity?”
“No, no. Tell me, did you ever feel something odd when near some of your peers? As in, oddly attracted to them? A special kind of scent only you sensed?”
Janette’s eyes widened. “Yes! Oh god, yes. Several times. Dana and Bridget always said I got the silliest crushes, but I knew that wasn’t it. I thought I was mad.”
“That’s your nascent Hunger, and it will drive you mad,” Meredith imagined saying. “Not at all,” she actually said. “Only a witch can sense the spark. It resonates with our talent, they attract one another. It’s stronger for some witches than others.”
“This explains so much. . . .”
“The spark resides in all of us witches,” Meredith lied, “and many humans, too. It courses through you, in your blood, every cell of your body, a source of magical potential without match.”
“Really? But I don’t feel it with you, why’s that?”
“Oh, that’s because . . . because I’m a grown witch, and I’ve learned to control it. Building powerful trinkets is my profession, I could hardly do that without my own supply, yes? Besides, can you imagine, going through life with that kind of craving in your mind? Insanity. No, we all have it in abundance. In fact, you could say it’s the blood the runs through Galavan’s veins. Everything would collapse without it.”
Janette nodded at every other word, grave and thoughtful. Not one hint of doubt or suspicion at the questionable bits.
“When you say blood, is that, like . . . literal blood?”
Meredith pondered her answer. No way around this one. Janette would have to know sooner or later.
“Yes,” she said, then amended, “well, not the ‘Galavan’s veins’ part. That’s figurative. But yes on using your spark for artificing. Empowering our creations is not without pain. I hope you’re not squeamish.”
The girl took it without distress, just one more piece of information to fit alongside the rest. She nodded one more time. “The price of power. That’s only fair.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
She tilted her head and considered it, as if being bothered hadn’t even occurred to her. “Well, I want to be a witch, and that’s part of what it takes, so. . . .” She finished her sentence by pursing her lips and shrugging one shoulder.
Meredith gave her an approving smile. “Exactly, yes. We do whatever it takes. I’m glad you understand.”
Indeed, hard to find a statement closer to universal truth. A true witch did whatever was necessary in the pursuit of her goals. If there was a common trait to every lauded figure in the history of Galavan, that was it.
That was the word that best defined a worthy witch. Meredith held it in her mind and branded it onto her thoughts. She would do whatever it took.
“Sooo . . . what now?”
She startled. “Huh?”
“What should I do now, Mistress?”
“Oh! Well, now I give you the basic exercises so you can practice until bedtime. I have errands to run.”
“What’s with the look?”
Janette’s disillusioned expression switched to an embarrassed grimace. “I just thought . . . well, at first I thought maybe I’d cast a spell before the day was over, but I didn’t realise it would be so hard. So, since I’m not casting a spell any time soon, maybe you’d planned to finish by moving the bead with your own magic? It’d be great to see what I have to look forward to.”
Meredith tried to hold back and not jump too quickly to the excuse she’d prepared.
“Mm, yes, that would make sense, would it not?” She drummed fingers on the desk. “But then you’d hear it, and you’re smart enough to pick it up ear-to-lips. And I couldn’t possibly have you cheating, now could I?”
Janette was properly horrified at the suggestion. “No way, I’d never cheat!”
“Hm, are you sure? You wanted to skip to the end earlier. . . .”
“Well, I just—I didn’t think it through, I didn’t mean it like that, I—”
“Alright, alright, calm down, I was only teasing. What I meant is, it would spoil the lesson if I cast the spell. Like me telling you the ending of a novel.”
“Oh. Yeah. I guess that’s fair. . . .” The girl looked down at her fingers as they pinched the fabric of her robe. “I guess I was really looking forward to seeing some magic at last.”
She glanced up, one eye laden with enough heartbreaking disillusionment to make up for the other. She appeared so crestfallen that Meredith couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ve a feeling that sad look of yours got you what you wanted more than once before, apprentice.”
Janette’s fluster made a fierce comeback, climbing all the way to her hairline. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I’m sure you don’t.” She paused, internalizing a sigh. “You want to see some magic, you say. I suppose it’s only natural.”
She hadn’t truly expected to avoid a demonstration. The promise of wonderful things to come could only go so far before the girl’s trust and enthusiasm waned. Eventually the Mistress would have to prove herself on her own merit, without tricks or trinkets.
She’d prepared just the thing.
“You seemed concerned the other day fire and lightning wouldn’t be possible with our magic,” She walked to the door and opened it. “Let me show you something. Come into the living room.”
The words captured Janette’s full attention. Soon they stood side-by-side on the rug behind the sofa, mentor poised with calm concentration, apprentice expectant in wide-eyed reverence.
Meredith raised her hand, palm up. “Have you ever wondered what a fireball is made of?”
A hesitant beat. “F– fire?”
“Ah, but fire is not a material. It’s a byproduct of combustion. To have a fireball, something must be set on fire!”
She launched into the spell without delay for maximum dramatic effect. Her fingers curled to conceal the ball of yarn that would soon become a small fireball hovering above her palm.
“šĥä’vēr cŏr Fǣ ị ŏṅ’ŷăn’ŧħā ünđ Riṅ fȑēɨŵṅ īlē’ėlụē ŏṅēş’ŷăn’šụḷ vă’vēr úm!”
Her voice wavered on the positional relative to her hand, pronouncing it šũḷ instead of šụḷ. What was meant as above come out as ahead.
With a loud fwoosh, the blooming jade in the corner lifted off the ground and burst into flames.
Janette gave a little jump as she faced the mystical burning plant. She didn’t see Meredith’s eyes widening to near-roundness or her mouth silently wailing in horror. For a few appalling moments Meredith watched the fire consume leaves and flowers, eat at the plant’s stem . . . and continue to grow, fueled by the sourced hearth. It soon was licking the walls behind it, the wooden beams above it, devouring fuel of its own. She severed the link dribbling through her meager talent, but it was already too late.
“It’s . . . beautiful. . . .”
Janette was as if entranced, unwitting or uncaring of the obvious danger. She took a step toward the floating fireplant. Meredith’s voice-in-thoughts shouted through the panic: Do something!
Getting water would take too long, and tossing a blanket over the blaze would only set the blanket on fire. The only way to choke the flames quickly enough was. . . .
Her mouth bowed in dismay at the prospect, yet her thoughts churned on, trying to recall every word needed for the spell, trying to improvise together all the necessary clauses. “Ahead” was an easy enough šũḷ, yes. A rectangular prism would do, wide as she was tall, from floor to ceiling, from her hand forward. “Hand” was ŷăn, and the word for “Oxygen” was . . . it was . . . agh!
“Air” would have to do, though this changed the effect from displacing a singular element to maintaining a vacuum. Was the e in “air” pronounced ë or ẽ? How in Caterina’s twice-damned garments was “displace” translated? Would “move” work?
She took a wild guess.
“₣ĕṅ’ēl kẽḣ’in val ŏṅ’ŧħā ŏṅ’rum’ᵮħā ᵱħā ŏṅēş’ŷăn’šũḷ ārem!”
A torrent of smoky air buffeted the room, sent robes flapping, tumbled books off shelves, folded the rug onto itself. The fire at the corner waned in an instant and vanished, leaving a shriveled ember to collapse in its wake. The wind died.
Before a moment’s respite, the fireplace fizzled to a smoldering death, and the wind returned in the opposite direction. It nearly dragged mentor and apprentice along as air rushed to fill the unnatural vacuum. It blew upon the charred husk in the corner and scattered the ashes all over the walls. The ceramic pot thumped back down onto the floor.
Meredith blinked several times at the mess, panting and trying not to show it. In her haste she’d specified neither source nor duration, or a limit to the prism’s depth, for that matter. Creating and maintaining the long wall of vacuum had consumed the hearthfire in one quick breath.
If the spell had drawn from her body, she’d have flaked apart into the ether in just about the same amount of time.
“That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Janette was gaping at the blackened pot that used to house a jade in full bloom. Robe rumpled and hair disheveled, she was the picture of ecstatic wonder, and not the least bit suspicious of her mentor’s incompetence.
“Can I hear the words again? I think I understood some of it! No, wait, how about lightning this time? Should we go outside for that? Does it come down from the sky, or does it come out of your fingers, like a Sith lord? Oh, I bet you can do both. I bet you could zap birds mid-flight. Could you do that? Can we do that next? Plee-e-ease?”
Meredith’s carefully measured gaze went from the giddy apprentice to the shriveled husk in the corner, the blaze-touched walls, the tendrils of smoke curling toward the ceiling. An acrid stink had already spread through the room, clogging her nostrils.
She absentmindedly fixed Janette’s hood and hair, but stopped upon realizing how much her hands shook. “Maybe some other day.” She gestured toward the insulated room.
“It’s time to get to work.”
MEREDITH WALKED PAST the front desk clerk and mildly curious nocturnals without making eye contact. She stopped for a hesitant moment at the stair-rest halfway to the first basement level, looked back up, and resumed her way down the steps. She knocked on the door to Yurena’s quarters softly, almost bashfully. She waited, knocked again, waited, thought about leaving and pulled the string to the doorbell instead. A tinny chime sounded inside.
Yurena opened the door in robe and nightgown, glasses in hand, eyes squinted to white-glinting slits. They widened to almost normal upon recognizing her visitor. Faint smoke wafted past the threshold, and Meredith had no trouble recognizing the sweet scent of her homegrown mellowvane.
She raised a hesitant hand. “Hi. Sorry to drop by so late. I read your―”
She didn’t have time to say more. Yurena had already dragged her inside and pressed her mouth to Meredith’s lips.
They didn’t say much else after that, either.
THE SHEETS WERE SOFT and warm, so very warm. A heavy blanket covered Meredith from feet to nape, and as she lay there with her face buried in the pillow, half-awake in cozy contentment, the delightful warmth was all that mattered.
She stretched the best morning stretch she’d had in a while, toes sticking out from under the sheet. They grazed a leg, and in that moment she realized this was not her bed.
“I was wondering when you’d wake,” Yurena muttered. She sounded amused and not drowsy at all.
“Mm,” Meredith replied, trying to make sense of the situation. She’d planned to leave after . . . visiting. When had she fallen asleep?
Pleasantly cool hands rubbed her neck, shoulders and back. They deftly avoided the few lingering bruises from last week’s deranged escapades—or rather, the utterly unremarkable fall Meredith took in her backyard.
Yurena leaned forward, whispering. “I was worried you’d disappear again. I’m determined to feed you that breakfast.”
Meredith groaned in delight as the librarian’s hands worked through dreadfully tense muscles. It wasn’t a big deal, she thought. It couldn’t be long after the sixth span, if that.
“You shouldn’t make such tight ponytails,” Yurena said affably, brushing Meredith’s tangled mane over to one side. “They give your hair such a homely curl. You’d be surprised how subtly intimidating the right cut would look on you.”
“I’ve tried,” Meredith slurred. “My hair is terrible. It just flops down no matter what I do. So I stopped trying.”
Yurena’s weight shifted under the blankets. She moved to straddle Meredith’s back, confirming her suspicion that neither of them wore a single piece of clothing, still. The sensation was. . . .
She could afford being a little late to work.
“I like the ponytails, don’t get me wrong. Businesslike is trending in lately. You could easily go for that.”
The fog in Meredith’s mind was slowly clearing up. “I didn’t know you had a mind for style.”
“Oh, I’m only talking. Spread your arms,” Yurena said, and worked her way from shoulders to fingertips.
“Gu-u-u-uhh. . . .”
“You’re always so tense, like the skyveil is about to close on your head. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.”
The librarian’s lanky fingers were surprisingly strong, kneading and massaging vigorously and methodically. The sweet scent reached Meredith’s nostrils again. It came from the rolled-up mellowvane puffer cradled in the nightstand’s ashtray.
“You truly like my herbs?”
“Oh, they’re a gift from the Dryads. All the infused strains get to my head too much. They make the migraines worse, somehow. Yours blunt the barbs every time.”
“You still get migraines?”
“All my life. I had it worse before. They considered termination back in early academy, did I ever tell you that?”
“You didn’t. Mmmh, that’s good, right there.”
“You know how they are if they think a brood is defective. Which I suppose I am. Just not defective enough.”
“Don’t get me started on barely achieving ‘good enough’—gugh, you’re so great at this.”
Yurena said nothing, but her pleasure at the compliment was clear in the way she pressed and stroked, kneaded and caressed. Her pointy fingernails sometimes grazed Meredith’s skin in shiver-inducing ways.
And yet she couldn’t fully enjoy it.
“What time is it?” she finally asked. “I can’t be too late for work.”
“It’s after eleven. You slept a long time.”
Yurena used her leverage to hold her down. “It’s fine! I already sent a comm that you couldn’t come in. You are sick, and I’m tending to your sickness. Such terrible food poisoning, you’ve spent all morning in my bathroom, I’ve been mortified. You shouldn’t eat the wild mushrooms in your backyard, Meredith.”
Yurena bent down so that her mouth was next to Meredith’s ear, a cascade of hair brushing the arch of her back. Nails gently dug into her shoulders. “You’re going to take a day off, and I’ll make sure you enjoy it.”
Her ministrations soon overpowered all resistance, leaving Meredith languid in the satisfaction of present-moment bliss.
“Speaking of work,” Yurena carried on, “I’ve good news. Remember my offer? The opening I had coming up, with Martha leaving for Tremmelton?”
“Yeah. . . .”
“I might not fill it, after all. They finally approved my golem request, after I tried for so long.”
“That’s right, it got through their thick skulls that no amount of basement tinkering is going to create another singularity, no matter how much Valeni blood runs through my veins. You wouldn’t believe the amount of oaths they made me sign, it’s ridiculous. Did you ever get a massage before?”
“No-o-ogh.” Meredith’s reply devolved into another satisfied grunt.
“I can tell. Anyway, I’m excited—I thought I’d never see the day I would have a golem of my own. I can’t wait to crack it open, if only to look at the guts.”
Golemancy was several branches removed from Meredith’s haphazard spread into the tree of knowledge. Though she couldn’t quite relate to Yurena’s excitement, she did find it rather endearing. “I’m still sorry I couldn’t accept the offer,” she said.
Yurena snickered. “I must admit, I just wanted to get close to you.”
“I don’t know why anyone would,” she mumbled.
There was no answer but for the meticulous knead of Meredith’s every tangle and knot. Neither spoke for a while, the silence abated by elated groans, strong breathing, the arrhythmic whispers of rustling sheets and skin on skin.
Yurena’s voice came faint and uncertain. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but. . . .”
Her hands slowed, then renewed their vigor. Time went by.
“You were saying?”
“No, never mind.”
A short while passed. Meredith prodded with a hint of trepidation. “You can say it, whatever it is.”
A full centispan came and went before Yurena finally pushed the words out.
“I’m a little scared of how happy I was to find you still here.”
Meredith kept silent, face hot against the pillow. The flutter in her chest wasn’t alarm but . . . something else. Something exciting, and daunting, and lovely.
“It’s never been like this for me,” Yurena continued. “Gracious ravens, I’m the one being pursued more often than not, you wouldn’t believe the kind of propositions you get at the front desk. But even when it was my initiative, it wasn’t like. . . .”
She trailed off again. Meredith kept an expectant silence, nervous sweat itching in inconvenient places.
Fingertips rested lightly on both sides of her spine. She felt Yurena take a deep breath that trembled on its way out. “I’m doing a piddlesome job at not pressuring you.”
Meredith’s mouth opened and closed a few times, reason and yearning fighting at the back of her throat. You’re right, I don’t want this, she knew she should say. I don’t mind, we’re past that point, she longed to say. Neither came out.
Yurena made a frustrated sound, half grunt, half moan. “Burn it to the Hollow, I’m saying it anyway. I want more. I want a lot more of you. You’re so different, I can’t get you out of my head—and I feel stupid, because it’s hardly been one cycle since our night together, and I haven’t even seen you lately. I’m so ridiculous, I doubt I ever crossed your mind before we started this. I’ve watched you for years, you know? Ever since you applied. I started to find you interesting, and then it became something else. I wondered. I fantasised. And when we kissed the fantasies came true, and now it’s become like . . . a siren’s song. You call to me, all day, and eventually it turns into something I cannot ignore, and I have to go find you. I’ve tried visiting more than you know.”
Her hands had stopped, listless on the small of Meredith’s back. Her voice had quieted with each sentence. She sat there, silent, waiting for however Meredith would react.
Flustered beyond description, Meredith couldn’t begin to sort out a reaction.
“Yurena,” she croaked, wary and nervous and deeply touched but mostly wishing to buy some time. The impulse to profess her own craving battled the need to keep her atrocious secrets. How could she hope to hide Janette from someone that might want to spend nights at her cottage?
As if to grant her wishes for stalling, the intimate lighting of Yurena’s room went out, leaving the basement dwelling in complete darkness. Both witches flinched in unison.
“Another outage,” Meredith said.
“Yeah. . . .”
“I wonder if it will last long.”
Yurena didn’t respond. The lights came back on. Silence stretched further.
“I shouldn’t have told you,” Yurena finally said. She moved off Meredith’s behind and sat next to her, knees bent, calves tucked under thighs. “This is so embarrassing. I shouldn’t have told you.” She shifted as if to get off the bed.
“No, please.” Meredith turned and sought Yurena’s hand. The librarian’s dark mane flanked eyes that shone with moisture. “I just . . . I’m no good at this. I’ve never been close to anyone, not like this. I’ve had relationships, but they were always . . . abusive, in some way. They started it, they bossed me around, they got bored, and I simply went with it. This, what you’re doing, what you just said, it’s . . . it’s all new to me. I don’t know how to react.”
Yurena frowned darkly. “Abusive?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll hunt them down and turn their flesh inside out.”
Meredith squeezed her hand. “You’re sweet to offer, but it was a long time ago.”
They looked at one another. Yurena’s frown transitioned into a cheerless smile. “What if I’d been forceful? You’d have gone with it too, I gather?”
Meredith raised her eyebrows and with some effort suppressed the impulse to deny the suggestion. She looked away. “Probably.”
“Is that what you’re doing right now? Going with it?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“It’s fine if you are. I told you it didn’t have to be―”
“I’ve never felt this way for anyone before,” Meredith said. “I want to be with you.”
Yurena appeared startled. Her smile was sweet and genuine. “Is that the truth?”
“You’re not like everyone else. I wish I’d known all this time. I only wonder. . . .”
“Why me? You could do so much better.”
Yurena didn’t look pleased at the question. “I said it before. You sell yourself short.” She repositioned her legs and drew nearer, her frown dissipating into a crooked smile. “You’re smart. You’re devious, Meredith. And I think you know it.”
“Devious?” She laughed. “Whatever might give you that impression?”
The librarian’s smile broadened. Sharp teeth gave bite to her words.
“Say, love. How is the youth progressing?”
TWENTY DIFFERENT LIES, all of them feeble, fought for supremacy over Meredith’s tongue. Yurena spoke before any one falsehood could assert its dominance.
“Soot and ash, I can see the gears turning already. You’ve nothing to worry about. I haven’t reported you and I’ve no intention to. Though I’d advise you not to have your lessons in the living room anymore, you never know who might have an ear to the door. . . .” She finished with a mischievous smile. “Or an aural augment trained on it.”
Meredith found herself breathless. Clearly denial wasn’t in the cards, and no lie could be big enough to justify what she’d done.
She stared back at Yurena, eyes slightly wide. “Why? Why wouldn’t you?”
“Report you? I thought I just said. Lovers do foolish things for one another. Oogh, it was such a rush when I found out what you were doing.” Meredith blinked with incredulity, which made Yurena laugh. “Reporting you would be a terrible waste! I could sense that youth through your walls, Meredith. Such a wonderful find, one of a kind, really. It’s no wonder you kept her to yourself. So clever. . . .” She wriggled even closer, enough for Meredith to feel the words brushing against her lips. “So devious.”
She found it hard to appreciate the intimacy. “I . . . I didn’t mean to. I was desperate.”
“Ogh, your breath.”
Yurena reached behind her for a small box on the nightstand. She rattled the box, popped it open, picked a small mint and brought it to Meredith’s mouth. She let Yurena place it on her tongue. The strong mint almost instantly cleansed the pasty bad taste between cheeks and teeth.
The librarian’s thumb lingered on Meredith’s lower lip, caressing it tenderly. “Much better.”
“So . . . you’re not horrified? It’s a terrible crime, especially with the deficit. . . .”
“Pfah! Do you think every youth that’s turned in is used the way it should? Who knows how many those Council crones keep to themselves. They’d rather let the realm collapse than give up the lifestyle. No, you saw an opportunity, and you seized it. And not just that—you could have been hasty about it, but you chose instead to build it up, to take the bigger risk and make the absolute most of it. That takes courage. That takes a special kind of witch.”
“A special kind of fool, maybe.”
Yurena chuckled and leaned in for a kiss. Try as she might, Meredith couldn’t reciprocate properly. The librarian pulled back, seeming more amused than displeased.
“You’re so tense. You’re wondering what I want out of this, yeah? Will I blackmail you? Will I hold it over your head, demand favours, money?”
Meredith let out a high-pitched laugh. “Money? Won’t get very far with that. . . .”
“I know. I only want to share, love. That’s the price of my silence. When the time comes, share the bounty with me. I’m not even asking for half. Just a small bit. I’m not greedy.”
“Yes . . . yes, of course.”
“I could even help feed it and make sure it doesn’t escape when you’re not there. Is it getting fat? Is it complying with your lessons?”
“Yeah, she’s—um, it’s complying. But no, please, that won’t be necessary. I couldn’t bear making you an accomplice. You need to deny all knowledge if I get caught.”
Uttering the words “get caught” made Meredith wince. She looked at Yurena with a knit brow.
The librarian crinkled her nose. “You look like you’ve a mouthful of rotten meat.”
“I just can’t believe it. . . .”
“What can’t you believe?”
“This! You! What I’m doing is mad, and the Judicars will come after you if I get caught. You know they will.”
“If you get caught. Are you planning on getting caught, love?”
“No, of course not, but―”
“But nothing, then.” She planted another kiss on Meredith’s lips.
“Yurena. . . .”
“It’s worth the risk. You’re worth the risk.”
Meredith needed a moment to process the conversation. She felt her chest swell, with pride, with wonder, and found herself smiling. She squeezed Yurena’s hand. “You . . . you truly think I can make it work?”
“Why wouldn’t it work?”
“And you don’t think I’m mental?”
“I’ll admit it was shocking when I realised what you’d done. But I thought about it, and concluded it’s brilliant.” She pulled Meredith closer, legs tangling together, free hand caressing her face. “I do think you’re mental. But I like it.”
“I’ve been so worried about what you’d think of me if you found out.”
“So you do think about me.”
“Of course I do. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else. So many times I’ve wanted to drop whatever I’m doing and just. . . .”
The corner of Yurena’s mouth quirked. She raised a suggestive eyebrow. “‘Just’?”
Meredith leaned in to demonstrate, all too eager to be rid of the tension pent up in the past weeks. The notion was so alien, and yet so inviting. Here was someone with which she didn’t have to scheme and watch her every word. She could let her guard down and simply enjoy herself. In this corner of the world, in this bed, she didn’t have to lie, to pretend, to keep hideous truths from spilling over.
Most hideous truths, in any case.
Yurena laughed between kisses. “So this is what it’s like to have your full attention.”
“I’m sorry. It’s been so stressful. I’ve been going insane―” A concerning idea made her pull back. “This . . . this isn’t a trap, is it? To get a confession out of me?”
“Yes, certainly. You’ve been entrapped, you foolish criminal, you. I’ll turn you over to the authorities right now.”
Meredith gave her a gentle shove. “Joker. Maybe this is my trap, hmm? I’m with the thought patrol, testing your loyalty, yeah? You’ve failed woefully.”
“Ah! And do tell, does the thought patrol always sleep with their suspects?”
Meredith nodded knowingly. “It’s required. No way to know someone’s true self, otherwise.”
“Well, we can both agree on that. I’ve no recourse, then.” Yurena held her hands in front of her, touching at the wrist. Her voice lowered to a husky purr. “You must take me away, inquisitor.”
It was enough to leaden Meredith’s breath, but an urge of a very different nature could no longer wait.
“I, um. . . .” She swallowed. “I need to pee.”
Yurena broke into laughter as Meredith scurried out of bed. “You’re not afraid I might escape?”
She glanced at her crumpled red robe on the floor and decided to leave it there. Meredith held on to the bathroom’s door and looked over her shoulder.
“I think we’re both trapped.”
The librarian smiled warmly. “I’ll be making breakfast, love.”
Meredith returned the smile and nodded. She made as if to shut the door, but her brow knit with worry. “Promise me you’re alright with what I’m doing. I need to hear it.”
“I am. I promise. It’s such a smart fix to your infusion problems. A find like that, properly built up, it could last you for decades, maybe even permanently.” Yurena stretched on the bed, quite clearly making a show of it. She spoke at the end of a contented sigh. “It’ll be such a rush when we devour it.”
Meredith tensed like struck by hideous cramps. With tremendous effort, she coaxed her head to slowly nod up and down, up and down.
“Yes,” she said. “I can’t wait.”
She shut the door.
With mechanical movements Meredith performed her morning ablutions, the routine only occasionally broken by her unfamiliarity with this particular bathroom.
Why hadn’t it even crossed her mind? It was the natural thing to do, the perfect solution for when she could no longer keep Janette—no, the youth—an unwitting captive. Much of the girl’s unprecedented attunement would become hers for several years forward.
She continued splashing water from the basin to her face, rubbing her features far more harshly than was necessary.
And yet. . . .
The thought was sickening. It tied a knot in her chest and made her mouth involuntarily curl with disgust. But why? It was just a human child. Was this the extent of her merciful disease? Wasn’t it enough to feel sympathy for the serfs? Wasn’t it enough that she felt compelled to send the duds and stunts back, instead of damning them to a life of servitude, abuse and mutilation?
Maybe it was the girl’s age. She was older than most specimens slated for harvest or consumption, hardly a few years away from sparkwane. The line between youth and adult had already started to blur.
“She’s not just some youth,” she muttered to her reflection. “She’s a witch. One of us.”
Was she, really? Not by current lawful standards. Perhaps in an alternate reality she’d have been brought into the fold, a reality where the post-Civil War purge hadn’t criminalized the very notion. The girl would’ve spawned a whole new brood with that kind of latent power. It wasn’t right to—
No. No, this was her shameful disorder crying out again. She couldn’t let it get in the way of the perfect solution to her problems. Meredith had sealed the girl’s fate the moment she’d lured her through the portal, and there was nothing to be done now but make the most of it.
She lifted her head from the towel, a determined frown on her brow.
“This is what witches do,” she told her reflection. “Stop being a gutless sop.”
Yurena’s voice came from two rooms over. “Breakfast is almost ready!”
She carefully folded the towel and perched it to dry. Absentmindedly she browsed through the drawers, wholly without meaning to. Nothing all that interesting and she didn’t have pockets, anyway. After a quick survey to make sure everything was as she’d found it, Meredith returned to the bedroom. The scent of fried onions wafted into her nostrils, along with the unmistakable musk of sautéed tips and piggies. Yurena must have been saving them for the occasion.
Meredith fought the revulsion starting in her gut, she quashed and pummeled it until it went deathly still. Once it gave no signs of revival, she stepped over her robe again and headed into the kitchen, feeling ravenous and not the least bit squeamish.
THE MISTRESS WALKED into her kitchen and sat on her chair, following the new and improved morning routine. It had been in effect for hardly a moon cycle, but already it had assumed the comfortable rote of years-old tradition.
“Good morn,” she said, pulling her seat up to the table. It was important to say it at the exact same moment every day.
She reached for a napkin, as she always would, and found none. Then she realized breakfast wasn’t on the table yet. Then she realized her apprentice hadn’t even responded. The girl was still at the stove, no robe over her hand-me-down night clothes, hair a tangled mess. Her movements managed to be both sluggish and abrupt.
“Janette? No ‘good morning’?”
Janette muttered something that might have resembled the greeting, along with an apology. She dumped the contents of a pot into a bowl, brought the bowl to a fruit-laden plate, and brought the plate to the table.
Strawberries rolled haphazardly after she set the plate down. They still had stems attached and some dirt clinging to them. Meredith raised an eyebrow. “Did you not wash these?”
Janette looked at them. Her eyes, puffy and blood-shot, were squinted to slits. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”
Without any urgency she got the bowl off the plate and took the fruit back to the counter.
Meredith glanced at the porridge. Just the brief look told her it was neither as thick nor as hot as she enjoyed it best. There was also no spoon with which to eat it.
She frowned and opened her mouth to point out the issue, but reconsidered before making a sound. Meredith watched her apprentice lean into the sink, scrubbing the strawberries clean under the tap.
“You don’t look well,” she finally said.
A moment passed. “Mm?”
“I said, you don’t look well, Janette. You haven’t for several days.”
“Oh. It’s . . . it’s nothing. Trouble sleeping.”
“You don’t seem to have slept at all. Did you just now get out of bed?”
Janette brought the fruit back, clean and neatly cut. “I’m sorry. Fell asleep in the end overslept. Didn’t have time to bathroom.”
“You’re slurring. I can hardly understand you.”
The girl squeezed her eyes shut a few times, abruptly shaking her head as if to clear it. An edge of irritation jagged her voice. “I needed to get breakfast ready for you. I didn’t have time to use the bathroom.”
“Well, go use the bathroom now.”
“But I have to clean―”
“I’m commanding you to go take care of yourself, apprentice.”
Color rose to Janette’s cheeks. Every hint of impertinence vanished. “Yes, Mistress.” Her eyes remained glued to the floor as she hurried out of the kitchen.
Munching on a strawberry, Meredith took the porridge bowl to the counter, poured it into the used pot and turned the stove back on. In silence she watched it cook, lips slightly pursed, eyebrows faintly drawn.
She was already enjoying a scalding-hot breakfast by the time Janette returned. The girl’s hair was parted in the middle and held in place with barrettes at her temples, and while her eyes were still red and her eyelids puffy with exhaustion, she no longer looked ready to fall over. The apprentice stopped at the doorframe, headed for the counter and began cleaning, all the while carefully avoiding Meredith’s gaze.
“Never mind that. Sit.”
Janette let go of the pot and headed for her Mistress’s table, movements quiet and hesitant. She sat as if afraid to break the chair and waited while staring at the hands on her lap.
“You’re going to tell me what’s troubling your sleep.”
She glanced at Meredith, very briefly. “It’s just dreams.”
“Just dreams? You stay up studying and working all night, and I’ve seen enough to know it’s not by choice.”
“I . . . I do want to be the best, Mistress.”
“I don’t doubt it, but I can’t let you work this exhausted. There’s been enough incidents as it is.”
The girl said nothing. She was fidgeting, fingers of one hand repeatedly pinching the skin of the other.
Janette looked to the side, moaning feebly. The corner of her mouth twitched down as she wrapped her arms around herself. Meredith’s urge to give the girl a hug was awfully hard to ignore.
“I can’t help unless you tell me what’s bothering you,” she said.
“It’s really nothing. It doesn’t matter anymore. . . .”
It was a thread of a voice. Mistress Meredith leaned elbows on the table, her stare as severe as she could make it. “No, it shouldn’t matter anymore, but it clearly does, and it’s only getting worse. You were terrified the last time I woke you. Maybe talking about it will help.”
Janette grimaced, met Meredith’s eyes, looked away.
“I don’t want to.”
“Janette. . . .”
“Please don’t make me.”
“Look, I know it’s hard. I understand, there are secrets you think you need to keep to yourself. You feel they might be too terrible to share, that bad things will happen if anybody knew. You’ve kept this secret for who-knows how long and it claws at your insides, it’s dug deep and it doesn’t let go. It tells you, ‘no-one must know.’ It tells you, ‘your life will be over if anyone finds out.’ Am I right?”
The girl seemed struck by her mentor’s insight. After some hesitation she nodded, silent.
“Well, sometimes that voice is right, and you shouldn’t let anyone know. But right now, I’m telling you it’s safe. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s safe to tell. Believe me, it will be a heavy burden off your shoulders.”
“I. . . .”
“Don’t you trust me?”
“I trust you. Of course I do.”
Janette didn’t respond, and silence dragged on. It appeared she was on the verge of pushing the words out, but when she lifted her eyes to her mentor the pained expression transitioned to one of surprised understanding.
“You already know. You know, don’t you?”
“You said you’d been watching me before getting me out. You must have seen it.” She blinked in mortified realization. “You’ve known all this time.”
Meredith stared, features distant. She didn’t have the first clue.
“That’s not the point,” she countered. “You need to say it out loud. You need to discuss this with someone.”
Janette’s voice lifted with desperate hope. “So I’m not crazy? Two nights before you got me out, you saw it happen?”
The silence that ensued lasted for a little too long.
“You’re the least crazy witch I know, Janette.”
Panic joined worry in the girl’s eyes. “That’s not a ‘yes.’ Oh god, please tell me you saw, I’m not crazy, it wasn’t just nightmares, I swear! There’s no way―”
“I saw! I did, yes.” Meredith, alarmed at Janette’s agitation, reached across the table and laid a reassuring hand on her forearm. “It wasn’t just nightmares, it really did happen, all of it. In fact . . . I rescheduled the recruitment day so I could get you out sooner. That’s why I had to go report your retrieval that very same night.”
Janette squeezed her tutor’s hand and exhaled a tremulous moan, shoulders sinking down. She leaned forward until her forehead rested on Meredith’s fingers.
“I knew it,” she whispered. “I knew it. Lies, all of it, all lies.”
An unpleasant feeling kept building in the pit of Meredith’s stomach as she watched the girl unravel. She’d have done a great many things to make it go away.
Tears began wetting her hand. After hesitating for a moment, Meredith reached over and stroked Jane’s hair. “It’s alright,” she said. “You’ll be alright.”
“I’m not there anymore. It’s over, I know this. Why does it keep coming back?”
Unable to find a good answer, Meredith kept finger-combing the girl’s wavy mane. After some time, Janette sighed and turned her head so her cheek would rest on her tutor’s fingers.
“I worry about my idiot sister,” she muttered.
Meredith let a few breaths go by. “I warned you about feeling homesick. It’s normal.”
“It’s not like that. It’s just. . . .” Janette shrugged. “She’s so stupid, she didn’t even know what was really going on. And mom’s so damn useless. She’s got too much to lose, so she pretends and goes along.”
“I do wish you’d stop being vague about the topic. You will never grow past it if you continue avoiding it.”
“What’s there to say? You saw it. It’s been going on for years, first my sister, then me. I knew it wasn’t normal, I always knew. It was awful and gross and talking about it only brings it back.”
Meredith internalized a sigh. Maybe if she knew more about human everyday life, whatever “it” was would become obvious.
Janette lifted her head and wiped at the tears with the ball of her hand, the gesture brisk and indignant like she resented their presence. She reached for the napkin nearby and gently patted until her Mistress’s hand was dry. When she spoke her voice still faltered, but it had rallied some confidence.
“I can’t just walk away from something like that, I guess. I need time. It’ll get better.” She lifted her eyes from the task and looked at her tutor. “It has to, right?”
Meredith sighed outwardly this time and ate another spoonful of breakfast. It had cooled far too much.
“I sure hope so,” she said after swallowing. “I like my breakfast hot.”
It got a rather satisfying chuckle out of the girl. “I don’t know how you can eat it without burning your mouth. I do miss cold cereal, I’ll admit. Honey Cheerios were the best.”
“Yeugh. Your ‘cold cereal’ is an abomination.” Janette’s Mistress wagged her finger in mock severity. “You should abandon such base cravings at once.”
“Ha! You’ve tried it?”
“There are many Earth goods available in Galavan’s markets. On a whim I tried this thing called ‘raisin bran’ something other. Pfegh.”
“Ew, that one’s bad. You didn’t try a good one, that’s the problem. I’ll make you a list of my favourites, you won’t regret any of those.”
“Hm. If you say so.”
Witch and apprentice looked at one another. The subtle smile that curved their lips transcended the silly small talk. Janette’s appreciation was plain to see. Meredith’s sympathy was genuine.
Jane left her seat and without thought Meredith leaned forward to receive her hug. It felt natural, like it was supposed to happen. A harmless hug that neither slipped into awkwardness nor overstayed its welcome.
“You called me a witch,” Janette said.
“I did? Funny that.” She gently pushed the girl to arm’s length. “Now, eat something light, clean up in here and go to sleep. I better not see a single component out of place on your desk when I get back, apprentice.”
Janette’s pleased expression fell. “But I don’t―”
“Shush. I’ll brew you something that will knock you out till I come back, and then we’ll have a day off.”
“What? But there’s―”
“Magrat and Malkin, must I truly convince you not to work for a day? You haven’t stopped since moving that first bead.”
“But I can—”
“You can kill us both if you don’t get proper rest, do you understand? We are not playing games here.”
After a moment of pursed lips, Janette swallowed whatever further argument she was about to make. “You are right, Mistress. I understand.”
“You better.” Meredith leaned on the chair’s backrest. “Now you’ll eat this fruit while I eat my porridge, and then you’ll clean up while I fetch some hagel and junleaf outside, and then you’ll drink what I give you and fall asleep in your room. Is that clear?”
The girl sat back down. A crease of concern returned to her brow. “You . . . you’re drugging me?”
There was an undertone of deep-set horror in Janette’s voice that gave Meredith pause.
“No, I’d never do that,” she said with a dismissive gesture. “It’s just herbs, crushed and steeped in water. Just like . . . a sleep potion? Completely harmless.”
“Oh.” The apprentice blinked a few times. “A potion. That sounds fun.”
“As fun as dreamless slumber can be, yes.” Leaving the issue as concluded, Meredith brought heaping spoon to mouth. Her lips twisted with displeasure.
“I can heat it up again,” Janette offered.
“No, don’t bother, I don’t want to be late. . . .”
A playful smile crept onto the girl’s lips. She pointed index and middle finger at the bowl.
“kẽḣ cŏr Riṅ fȑēɨŵṅ ēī’īlēth ėlụē ŏṅlēv’ŷăn’šũḷ vă’vēr úm.”
A cool gust of air brushed Meredith’s cheeks upon the last syllable of the spell. With Janette’s infused speech came an alarming rush of spent power, pouring forth like roiling heat off a swamp furnace vent.
Hearty steam rose from the food.
Delight bloomed in Meredith’s features before she could quell it. “Did you research that on your own?”
The apprentice nodded, pride clear in her every gesture. She’d cast her first spell not even a cycle ago, and oh how much she’d jumped and fussed, cherishing magic as the most wondrous gift instead of the dreadful chore it had always been for Meredith. She felt it again, the same she felt every time the girl made progress: her chest expanding with a sense of self-worth she couldn’t quite explain.
It always brought to mind the way she was supposed to feel. She endeavored to purge out these emotions like they were a foul breath that had somehow filled her lungs. A severe frown overtook the wonder.
“I don’t like you using magic lightly,” she said, more stern than she wanted to be, far less callous than she should’ve been. “Remember what I said before? We value manual labour in this house. Magic cannot be cheapened with routine use and commonplace tricks. See, I could use it for half my chores or portal to the manufactory every day, but I don’t, because using our hands and feet and tools is important. Do you understand?”
Janette’s enthusiasm had shrunk with every word. “I didn’t mean to . . . I mean, I just―” She pursed her lips. “I understand. I’m sorry.”
The wounded look in her one expressive eye brought a tide of shame and guilt that wholly eroded Meredith’s severity. It would all end poorly for the human girl, yes, she was well aware. There was no need to be unpleasant in the meantime, was there?
She smiled with encouragement. “Don’t be so cross. Your spell was impeccable, I am very impressed. You just need to apply your talents more judiciously. Focus on artificing in the lab, and leave heating up porridge to more mundane tools.” She pushed the plate-full of strawberries toward the girl. “It’s what I do, after all.”
Janette returned the smile, which washed away the bitter taste in the back of Meredith’s throat. From there they ate their meals in pleasant silence, enjoying the morning as it should have always been.
Whatever was troubling the girl’s sleep, it would pass. It was over.
It didn’t matter anymore.
THE NIGHTWOOD SIGN above the door read “Dreya’s Goods & Curio.” Deep in a seldom-transited alley within the Dredge, the door was painted a dark green that blended perfectly with the rest of the building. The “store” would have gone completely unnoticed if Meredith hadn’t been looking for it.
She pushed the door and walked in, a subtle chime announcing her presence without broadcasting it to the entire neighborhood. Well-lit wooden shelves stocked with the most outlandish items met her eyes, but she suppressed the impulse to gawk and kept her free hand tucked deep in her pocket, lest it went wandering on its own. The last thing she wanted was to look like a tourist or be accused of shoplifting.
A sign stood to one side of the central aisle, next to a large mesh basket. In hand-painted black letters against white background, the sign read:
Juggling the parcel she carried, Meredith unholstered her crossbow and gently placed it in the empty basket. The smoke pellets in her pocket followed suit, as did the wrist-sheathed dagger she had no intention to ever use. Once properly weaponless, she went to the display case that doubled as a counter.
A witch stood behind the counter: short, wiry, gaunt, hairless. Her well-tailored robes were green with a golden trim and stylishly bound at the shoulder and forearm with black ribbon. She was looking Meredith up and down, a smile pulling at the corner of her paper-thin lips.
“If it isn’t the cloaked stranger. That’s more protection than before.”
Meredith didn’t comment on it. Making conversation didn’t strike her as enigmatic. She approached in silence.
“What might you want today? Did that cheap converter blow up whatever Earth device you were trying to charge? I warned you about it, no refunds.”
The converter for Janette’s phone was working fine, much to her apprentice’s delight. Instead of remarking on it, Meredith set the parcel on the glass counter and untied the packaging strings. The brown paper peeled back from Jane’s work.
“How much?” she rasped.
The mask she wore infused her voice with a metallic reverberation, obscuring her words to near unintelligibility. The witch—Dreya, she’d always assumed—picked up the trinket and inspected it at first dismissively, then curiously, then carefully.
An itch prickled at Meredith’s cheekbone and threatened to drive her insane as she waited.
“A pusher?” Dreya asked, though by her tone she hardly needed confirmation.
The old witch slipped a hand into the opening and felt her way around. “What’s the power-up trigger? Standard specs?”
“Doesn’t have one. Just press the index finger knob.”
“An unlocked pusher? Not precisely Department-compliant, is it?”
“I prefer the term ‘user-friendly.’”
The pusher switched on, muted celeste patterns whispering alive all over its gauntlet-like shape. She lifted a bare eyebrow.
“Shape and range?”
“Cylindrical. Range is adjustable, capped at seven metres.”
“Also adjustable up to a hard cap of twelve thousand vim. Without safeguards, it could probably go half over that.”
Both eyebrows rose. It wasn’t as much surprise as skepticism.
“I have the feeling,” Dreya said thoughtfully, “that if I were to ask where you came by this item, I might not receive a satisfactory answer.”
“It’s mine. I made it. I wish to sell it.”
“I see. What’s the half-life?”
“Forty-three span at a hundred vim per mil, by my calculations. Refillable.”
“Hah! What did you do, break and enter the spark harvest plant? If you had free access to that kind of juice, you wouldn’t be looking to sell this here.”
“Whose spark I used is irrelevant. This won’t be the last one, if you are amenable.”
Dreya switched the trinket off and looked up, inquisitive stare boring through the dark mesh covering Meredith’s eyes. For an anxious moment she got the impression this sly shrew had always known who the “cloaked stranger” was and what she was up to.
“Roll up your sleeve,” Dreya said, two fingers tapping the counter on Meredith’s right side.
“You wouldn’t be the first overzealous inquisitor trying to strut their coif in my affairs. Roll up your sleeve or no transaction.”
Meredith held still, trying her darnedest not to make a fool of herself. What would a world-weary, shady individual do?
“Very well,” she finally responded, rolling up her right sleeve and offering her arm. Dreya grabbed it and closely inspected the crook of Meredith’s elbow. She moved down to the forearm, looked just as closely and prodded with her fingers, as if searching for something under the skin.
“I’m not branded,” Meredith said.
Dreya didn’t look up. “Dermaturgy isn’t the only thing I’m looking for.”
“Hm,” was the very stoic and world-weary response.
At last, Dreya nodded and let Meredith go. She rolled her sleeve back down. “Satisfied?”
The witch grunted. “For now.” Her attention switched back to the artifact. “It’s my policy to test all function-oriented items before purchase.”
“I guarantee you―”
“The guarantees of an anonymous stranger aren’t worth a dud’s giblets. I carry out the tests after day’s closure. Leave this in my deposit box, come back within the next three days and I’ll have a fair offer for you. If it turns out you’re wasting my time, I’ll make you a rather forceful offer to get bent. If three days pass and you haven’t come back, I assume ownership of all goods.”
Meredith looked at the item atop the counter. It was the culmination of countless span of labor. Its painstakingly carved wordpaths represented almost two cycles of intensive lessons, practice, failed attempts, destroyed casings, shattered furniture, three small fires and one near-death experience. Parting with it for free, however temporarily, struck her as the silliest notion she could’ve entertained.
“Surely you’re not doubting my integrity,” Dreya said. “I’ve been in business for well over fifty years. I’d have to flog whoever referred you for not educating you properly. After I wring her name out of you, of course.” She made a twisting motion with her hand as she said it. Meredith had no trouble imagining the old hag literally wringing her neck to squeeze every single secret out of her.
“No,” she hurried to say, “I’m just . . . emotionally attached. It was a lot of work.”
“Can’t say I care. These are the terms. Accept them or go elsewhere.”
Dreya’s wry half-smile clearly conveyed her meaning. Good luck finding a better fence.
Meredith suppressed a long sigh. “How much, if the tests satisfy you?”
The storekeeper scowled at the question, yet soon the scowl turned to grave consideration. She rubbed thoughtful fingers on her lips, eyes glued to the trinket. “I have to check some of my data for the exact figure. If it does what you say . . . I’m willing to offer about thirty-two stem.”
Meredith was thankful for the mask covering the goofy, slack-jawed expression on her face. The amount was more than she’d spent setting up the home lab.
After some very carefully controlled stillness, she slowly slid the pusher toward her new best friend in all of Galavan. “That seems . . . agreeable. Same time tomorrow, then?”
Dreya scribbled a few short lines on a piece of paper before taking the trinket in her hands. She held it with deliberate care. “As long as it’s before day’s closure, I don’t give a rat’s arse. Take your receipt.”
The witch disappeared through a curtained doorway behind the counter, and soon after there were muffled metallic noises and keychain rattling. A rat was some Earth animal, if she remembered correctly. What might its arse look like? Why was it poorly valued? Such a peculiar idiom.
Alleged Dreya reemerged.
“You are still here. Did you want anything else?”
“Right, I mean, no. Until tomorrow, then.”
Dreya shrugged. “You have three days.”
Meredith nodded, turned and walked between elbow-height shelves and display cases. She was reaching for her basketed gear when something nearby caught her attention. It took her a moment to place where she’d seen a similar one before: Jane’s Earth room, an eternity ago.
She turned. “Is this a trinket?”
Dreya was in the same exact spot, clearly watching Meredith’s every movement. “What is?”
“This . . . creature.” Meredith gestured without touching the winged figurine. It was as tall as her hand was long.
The storekeeper got on her tip-toes and leaned to one side. “That? No, just an Earth bauble. Yours for thirty-five P even.”
“Um. How about twenty?”
“How about forty?”
“Right. Thirty-five it is.”
Meredith cradled the figurine between forearm and chest as she counted coins out of her pocket purse while walking back to the counter. She stopped abruptly.
“Um.” Heat rising to her ears, she held out the purse for Dreya to see. “How about . . . twenty-eight?”
The old witch glared, mouth twisted in disgust. She put out a hand. “Fine, give it here already. That pusher better be as good as you claim.”
Meredith closed the distance and poured all seven coins on the wrinkled hand. “It’s better.”
“We’ll see.” Dreya produced tape and a roll of brown paper from under the display case and deftly wrapped the statuette. “It’s almost closing time.” She waved her hands in a shooing gesture. “Congratulations on your purchase, pleasure doing business, yadda yadda.”
Package in hand and readily dismissed, Meredith retrieved all of her equipment and made her way outside. Upon stepping out she was surprised to see dusk was come and gone, the late sun replaced by a moon cycling toward full. The nighttime skyveil coated most of the cobbled passage in blue-tinged silver wherever the dingy, sporadic streetlights didn’t reach.
She started down the alley, eyeing every shadow with suspicion. Juditors patrolled most of Brena’s neighborhoods these days, but they rarely made it into the Dredge. Her free hand undid the latch to the crossbow holster, then dug in a pocket for the smoke pellets. Her fingers softly rattled the little spheres as she walked.
She was twenty steps away from the intersection when two infused voices descended from the roof above. The incantations mingled so that she only understood a few concepts from each: gravity, void, ground, sphere.
In a bout of panic Meredith crushed the pellets and threw them straight up. The pressurized hiss blotted out the back-end of the incantations, and as the thick shroud formed above her head she dashed toward the nearest wall, hand fumbling at the holster. Maybe she could get out of the way before—
An irresistible downward force bent her knees and threw her to the cobblestones. She fell on her left side much harder than she could prepare for. Her elbow thumped the ground, made a horrible crack and shot up against the shoulder joint to cause an explosion of pain.
Package and weapon flew off her limp fingers and clattered beyond reach. They were upon her in an instant, one quickly wrapping something around her legs, the other rolling her over, planting a knee on her chest. Past the blinding pain Meredith saw a cloth mask, dark hood, dark ringlets, dark eyes.
“Scream all you want. No-one can hear you.”
Meredith did just as much, unable to hold back. She struggled desperately, screams turning to sobs. The sharp wire around her legs bit into the cloth of her pants, tightening harder the more she writhed.
A serrated knife the length of her forearm flashed in front of her eyes.
“Stop that and give up everything you have, or I’ll cut pieces off of you until what’s left fits in a feed bag.”
The knife quieted her sobs, though every breath still came with an agonized whimper. It was an inhuman struggle to remain still.
“Please, my arm, please. . . .”
Already the attacker’s free hand was searching through pockets, patting for valuables. It deftly unclasped the concealed dagger from the wrist sheath and tossed it beyond reach. The pleas were thoroughly ignored.
“I’m certain you broke her arm,” the other one said. She had a firm grip on Meredith’s legs. “I keep telling you to change your blasted spell.”
“It works. She’ll live.” She’d already found Meredith’s purse and was rifling through it. “Is this a joke? Where’s all the moppet? You go in with something, you come out with chud. Where is it!”
“I don’t have any money, please, my arm. . . .”
“I can’t understand a word.” The mugger threw back Meredith’s cowl and tore off the full-faced mask. The abrupt movements were like hot irons stabbing through her limb.
A rough gloved hand clamped on Meredith’s mouth and chin, painfully puckering up her lips. “The chud. Where.”
“I don’t have any, I swear. . . .”
“Do you think I’m stupid?”
The other one peeked over her partner’s shoulder. Dark hair in a tight bun. Slanted eyes, amber irises, ghostly skin.
“I’ve seen her face before,” she said. “I don’t remember where.”
“Don’t care. We’ll just cut her up. Her parts will be worth something.”
“Will you lay off with the cutting? There’s no point in mugging someone if you’re just going to kill them anyway!”
“You’re the one bent on letting them live. Far more profitable―”
“And risky, and messy! Are we really arguing this right now, Cass? You’re always―”
“Shhhush-shush-shush, you moron! You just gave up my name, what’s wrong with you?”
No answer. Meredith’s vision swam in stars, filling the alley with fleeting shimmers.
“We have to kill her now,” the knife-wielding mugger concluded.
“It’s only your first name, there are other Cassandras out there!”
“How many? All of three, maybe? No. Can’t let her live.” The serrated blade nicked the skin of Meredith’s throat. “That’s just too bad.”
Meredith’s voice was an asphyxiated squeal. “I can give you over sixteen stem tomorrow!”
The pressure on her neck eased. The thug’s eyes narrowed.
“You really do think we’re stupid, if you’re hoping to walk away on a promise.”
“Follow me home!” Meredith had to pause and take in a few choking breaths. “You’ll know where I live, you can stalk me, she’s paying me tomorrow, all yours!”
The cloaked witch exchanged a look with her partner. “Listen to this joshwag. There’s no way she’s getting out of this one. OR IS THERE??!”
“She should buy the book and keep reading!”
“Right you are!”
THERE WAS ONLY ONE WAY TO FIND OUT