As soon as my feet touched the cliff top at Cape Foulweather, I whirled to face Wren, grabbing her arm to still her forward motion. “You acted like a child back there. It’s always the same with you. I’m sick of it!”
Wren’s gaze dropped to where my hand connected with her flesh, and she kept her eyes there as the silence drew onward. I got the message, and gave up the grip that had tethered her to listening to my words. Not that they’d ever sink in.
What a horrible day. We’d been sent to rectify a situation in Cambodia, where a witch had called something not of this world into existence through spells. And when the Lady had to clean up something like that, she cleaned it up back to the source.
In this case, that source was a tiny, grandfatherly man living in a one-room hut in the middle of nowhere. I’d never know whether he’d been trying to call the horse-sized, blood red lizard creature. It had rampaged through the countryside for a day and a half, until we could get there and reverse his work, sending the monster back to wherever it came from. Whether that had been his intent or no, he was doomed from the moment we darkened his door.
Still, Wren didn’t have to take such joy in the killing.
By the time my twin was done with the old man…there hadn’t been much to recognize as a man. I’d invoked a combustion spell, and watched his corpse burn until what was left wasn’t recognizable as human at all, nor flesh. When he’d burned to smoldering cinders and ash, I used another spell, and a breeze picked up in the interior of his hut, scattering the ash that had recently been a man right out the door. While Wren stood quietly, I wiped the hut clean of our presence. I was always cleaning up after her.
Now I had to get my point across fast. Before long, one or another of the aunts would come to see what was taking us so long. Dinner was probably on the table, with Aunt Ivy watching the clock impatiently.
“What is the point of making them hurt, Wren?” I hated the pleading tone in my voice. Maybe if I were stronger, she’d listen to me.
My sister was quiet for a moment, and when I’d decided she wasn’t going to answer, she said, “What’s the point of the sun rising, or the waves beating the shore, Sage?”
“I’m talking about people and pain.”
At that she finally met my eyes, and my chest tightened at the hurt still lingering in me, when I saw my sister for who she truly was. She really didn’t get it. My words were a mystery to her. And somehow, it never stopped hurting me.
My phone beeped gently; the distraction from this conversation was a blessing. Pulling it from my pocket, I hoped it was Peter. He was the best distraction.
My heart thudded and lurched when my eyes caught the number on the screen.
It flashed as CC, the letters far too large for my liking, with my stone cold twin standing right next to me. Wren didn’t appear to notice, but I couldn’t exactly answer his call right now.
This was the razor-fine balance I walked these days. And what could I do about it? Wren would never join me serving Chaos. I had less hope of that result now than when I’d betrayed the Lady six months ago. Chaos seemed happy enough to have another of the Lady’s Hands in his pocket, but the tight space was beginning to chafe.
I was seeking my own freedom here, after all, not just another – a better – immortal to serve. I’d take a quiet life with a small boutique on the coast over these soul-wrenching missions. I’d take that deal any day. Sure, I was on the right side now. Maybe I was even doing some good against the Lady and her constant power plays. But I was still far from the normal life I craved.
Tonight would be normal enough. We were late for our twenty-first birthday dinner with the aunts.
Without another glance at Wren, I turned and walked inside. For Aunt Hope’s sake, I took a few deep breaths and focused on a serene expression. My sister’s strangeness wasn’t Aunt Hope’s fault. Since we’d never known our mother, there was no one to blame at all. Our personal histories were all we had, as if our ancestry was shielded behind the vapor of times gone by and the decisions made for us while we were too young to speak for ourselves. The unspoken truths about us that we’d never be privy to.
But Aunt Hope had always been kind. She’d been all the mother I’d ever needed, and I schooled my expression so I wouldn’t let her down. If she understood what was in my heart, she would worry, despite the fact she was as likely to change my mind about the Lady as I was likely to change Wren’s. It wasn’t going to happen.
I sniffed the air appreciatively as I stepped inside the house. After a long journey in the whipping wind, the house felt too still, and a touch too warm. But it would always be home.
“Girls? You’re late. We only waited because it’s your birthday,” Aunt Hope called cheerfully from the direction of the dining room.
Wren slipped in behind me, bringing a chill touch of wind with her.
I made my way to my seat, steeling my nerves in my childhood home.
Aunt Ivy frowned at us. “Where have you been?”
“Working,” I answered calmly.
“Well, that’s unavoidable then. Come on girls, have a seat. The food is getting cold.”
“Did you cook?” I asked Aunt Hope. It certainly wasn’t Aunt Ivy.
Aunt Hope shook her head, her auburn curls now streaked with the occasional gray. When had that happened? “Melody is here.”
“Where is she?” I craned my neck to look into the kitchen, but I didn’t see her bustling around in there either.
“Oh, I didn’t mean she was here right now. She’ll be back later tonight.”
I let it go. If she wanted to tell me where Melody had gone, she would have done so.
“So, where did the Lady send you this time?” Aunt Ivy’s jealousy was obvious. She’d never wanted to give up taking missions as one of the Lady’s Hands, but there was nothing either of us could do about it, so she kept her annoyance in check, mostly.
“Baltic Sea. There were some artifacts discovered there, including a couple of scrolls that she wanted. Just a trading deal, nothing that interesting.” I didn’t mind sharing the tales. It helped, a little, to talk about it, even though I knew Aunt Ivy relished her gifts and her service in a way I would never understand and could not bring myself to emulate. However, I wasn’t interested in sharing about the last stop on this particular trip; I continued to steel my stomach against the stream of gory images.
Aunt Ivy shot Aunt Hope a look, like I’d just confirmed something for her. I didn’t ask. Honestly, I didn’t want to know anything about the aunts that I’d feel compelled to pass on to Chaos. I was determined to leave them out of this. They were retired; they didn’t take missions for the Lady any more. Why should Chaos worry over them? I let those lies comfort me in the face of my disloyalty, and ignored the look that passed between them.
The food was simple, and lovely. I was earnestly glad Melody had come, and I couldn’t wait to see her later. I could feel the love she’d put into the meal, as I always could with Melody’s food. I soaked it in for the dark times sure to come.
Later, I snuck off guiltily as the aunts rinsed our dishes, and returned the call from Chaos. It rang three times before Tim picked up. “Sage?”
“It’s me,” I confirmed impatiently. “I don’t have long.”
“I need to meet you tonight. The old pier.”
“I can’t make it until midnight.”
“It’s our birthday, and we’re celebrating. All of the Hands are getting together for dessert – and I have to go, Tim.”
“Alright. Midnight.” He didn’t sound happy about it, but what could he say? The last thing any of us wanted was my cover blown. That went double for me given it was my skin on the line.
“See you there.” I hung up and went back to the table, hoping no one would notice the tension stringing my shoulders together like I was full of wires.
One of these days I was going to blow it. It was a feat of will just to track all of the lies I told. I didn’t want to know what would happen when the Lady found me out.
The California farmhouse where the Hands Maj and Terra lived stood on a hill overlooking sprawling cornfields, almost ready to harvest. I paused on the short walk from the portal in the woods, taking in the view.
Aunt Hope stopped beside me and put her arm around my waist. “Everyone’s waiting.”
“I know. This is a lovely place, isn’t it?”
“Yes. The Lady treats her people well.”
I said nothing to that. When it came to certain assumptions, I would never agree with my family.
Inside, a heavenly chocolate smell greeted us. Wren wrinkled her nose and swept up the staircase – retreating to solitude, as usual, despite the fact it was our birthday that brought everyone together this time.
I could hear Godwin in the other room, and smiled. I was looking forward to getting his thoughts on a couple of new tricks I’d learned on missions recently.
A formal living room occupied the space to the right of the foyer, and at a glance I saw the youngest twins seated there. I went in to say hi. It had been years since we’d seen each other.
“Hello, Iris. Hi, Mabel.” The nine-year-olds looked at their shoes instead of meeting my eyes.
The sound of a throat clearing brought my attention to the corner of the room, where the girls’ mother sat at a small desk. “Sage, isn’t it?” Her voice was tight, like she was holding back tears. She waved me over. “Can I speak with you? Is it true–”
“Sage!” Godwin called from the doorway. “Happy birthday! Get in here.”
I joined him, giving him a hug. “Good to see you.”
“Yes. You’ve been scarce these days. Time for a visit to Seattle. I’d love more time to talk to you.”
I nodded. “I should make it up more. I’ll call you when I get a little break?”
“Ah, she’s running the newest Hands ragged, is she?”
I grinned. “You’re not getting jobs? Maybe you’re getting too old for missions.”
“What?” he huffed. “Not a chance. We’re off to parts unknown right after this, actually. Now let’s go see what Gemini’s got cooking in the kitchen.” The eldest Hands, Gemini and Garnet, always took great care of us at these gatherings, which meant heaps of food they’d spent the last few days preparing. We were only here for dessert, but the mingling of smells told me there was more than one dish on the horizon.
I waved to the youngest twins and their mother, who’d sat there, silent, through our exchange. The look in the mother’s eyes gave me pause; what had she been about to ask me?
In the hall, Briggs stood nose to nose with Maj, who was staring at him with a look that would sear his bones if she had that sort of power. “You wouldn’t dare!” she hissed at him.
“Just give me a reason. It isn’t as if–”
Godwin cleared his throat, and Briggs broke off. Godwin might have known what they were fighting about, but I had no idea. I could venture a few guesses, though. These two had abrasive personalities, and had to work together a lot, since they were the only bonded set of four Hands in the Lady’s arsenal at the moment. It never shocked me when they didn’t get along.
“Everyone get in here!” I heard Gemini call. “Dessert is on!”
Maj shot another glare at Briggs, and left in a hurry.
“Did you have to do that here?” Godwin glared at Briggs, who just shrugged.
“Happy birthday, kid,” he said. I added my glare to his brother’s. Maj wasn’t the only one who had trouble getting along with egotistical Briggs. He didn’t have to call me a kid.
He headed off toward the dining room.
At some point Wren had returned. She’d saved me a seat on the other side of the table. After a round of Happy Birthday, we set into the ice cream and two versions of rich chocolate cake – a German chocolate and a dense cake with cherry compote. As usual, a ridiculous amount of food.
Despite the tension between Briggs and Maj, most of us were in a good humor. Chocolate always smoothed out wrinkles. I was chatting up Aunt Hope, talking about our Portland house and my plans for the yard come spring, when my phone rang.
I scrambled to clean my fingers enough to risk my phone. It was the Lady’s personal servant, Yetta. I answered just before it went to voicemail.
“Hello?” I said, wincing at how loud it came out. Everyone at the table glanced my way. Yetta, I mouthed, and they went back to what their food and conversations. I wondered why I was the one getting this call.
“Sage? The Lady requires your presence, and Wren’s, first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Yes. We’ll be there.” It would be pointless to ask Yetta questions. The Lady didn’t fill her servants in on the missions of her Hands.
Curse my damn phone. Answering calls brought me nothing but trouble.
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