The next morning I woke up in a snit, and the day just got worse from there. Over breakfast, Aunt Ivy told us the Lady would see us in the afternoon. That cut short my plans for a solitary hike after lessons, but I didn’t say anything. I was in too foul a mood to risk opening my mouth.
The Lady didn’t see us often when we were children. A few times a year she would send for us, and Hope or Ivy would scurry around preparing us to visit her. A bath, scented oils and incense were all apparently necessary to erase the stink of childhood so we would not offend her immortal senses.
I didn’t get it. On the one hand she wanted us to treat her like a favorite aunt, but on the other hand all of these visits built a relationship that I now understood she’d call on throughout our lives. It felt calculated, and I wondered if she realized how cold she came off. I wondered if she really cared about us at all.
None of these were sanctioned thoughts, and I spent a lot of time as a child wondering what was wrong with me that I felt this way when the rest of the family was so enamored of the Queen of Peace.
We’d seen her more regularly lately. Now that we were fourteen and had two years until twin school, it was time for her to start testing our knowledge of the basics.
The Lady lived outside the world, in more ways than one. Her dwelling was magical; the aunts called it the Realm. It could only be reached through established doors trusted to the best among her family of witches. Her Hands.
The aunts had been Hands, but they retired to raise us. That’s how it worked. You served, and served…and then served some more. So many ways to serve an immortal – she had all the time in the world to think up new ones. And her Hands were just that. Anything that needed doing in the world, it’s up to her Hands.
The Queen of Peace despised the modern mortal world. She couldn’t stand all of the noise, the clamor of cars and construction, the din of crowds.
It seemed I was the only one who found that strange, but I wondered what good it is to be immortal, if you can’t stand the world you live in.
She had no other world. She had her home, but that was not a world.
The Realm was vast, yet enclosed in the earth’s breast, underground. The walls in all of the rooms were curved, painted in flaked gold. Some were odd, stretching shapes and others were perfect domes. I wondered if it was based on a man-made design, or on natural caverns. Maybe it was actually based on some sort of architecture unknown to humans.
Really, we had no idea what she was. The Lady. The Queen of Peace. Queen of the immortals, or so she told us. She was more compelling than any human could be, serene and aloof, and beautiful beyond utterance. Her icy gaze made you want to bow in submission. Her smile made you crave another. For all of our family, it was the same.
What was an immortal? Just how old was she, and how was she immortal? Was she some other race? A witch who’d achieved that ultimate power, the power to live and live forever?
She didn’t talk about it. And we weren’t allowed to ask. The aunts would brush aside such a question, but the fear in their eyes was telling. We weren’t supposed to ask. There was a lot we weren’t supposed to ask.
Some rooms in the Lady’s home were filled with treasure chests. At least that’s how I used to think of them. We could spend all day in one room, eating the delicate foods the Lady preferred, dressing up in the fabulously rich clothing from the chests, listening to the stories of the different artifacts we uncovered. That part was fun.
I loved the Lady’s stories. They were so romantic, and I am a romantic at heart. Her stories were filled with adventure, with love and lovemaking – Wren and I blushed at these parts.
Her rooms were roughly organized by historical period, though the treasures crossed more cultures than I could count. She’d collected a history here. Today I finally asked a question that had burned inside me since we began our exploration many months before.
“My Lady, is it the history of the witches you collect here? The history of my people?”
She looked a bit taken aback, her eternally smooth brow crinkling in a frown. “Your people? Your people are my people. The witches owe me fealty after all I’ve done for you. You call them your people? I am your people. I am all you’ll ever need. You are my witch. My Hand.”
I ducked my head in submission, knowing better than to answer back. I knew my subservience would help her set aside her sudden bout of temper. Sometimes she reminded me of my sister. I was handling the Lady like I did Wren, and I struggled not to laugh. It shouldn’t be funny. Both of them were immature, but Wren was fourteen. What excuse did the Lady have? I pondered that. Was it an effect of immortality…did you actually get less mature if you lived forever?
I needed to escape, at least for a moment, to compose myself. “My Lady, may I have leave to visit the bathroom?”
The Lady focused her gaze on the far wall, and a moment later her servant Yetta sauntered in. When she turned our direction, a sullen expression marred her beauty. Her dress was gold, of some shimmery fabric. It was gathered beneath her ample breasts and flowed to the floor in a cascade of scattered light. I would have loved that dress, but I’d probably never be shaped like Yetta, and it wasn’t at all practical if you were expected to stay busy, as we were.
If we had any “small needs,” like the bathroom, while we were with the Lady, we were handed off to one of her personal servants. Some of them liked us. Yetta, the recent favorite, wasn’t one of them. She was just a few years older, and far less powerful than us.
The Lady’s servants weren’t chosen for their power, more likely a lack of it. Beauty moved the Lady to take a witch into her home. She loved the beautiful ones, and never tired of new beauty to appreciate. I guessed it was one of the things that made life worth living, century after unforgiving century, as her world fell away beyond her door, and changed.
So Yetta was offended any time the Lady sent her off on an errand for, or with, us. I didn’t care for her either, and I knew Wren and I were worth ten of her apiece. I’d seen the Lady take witches in before. Brody was the last. His beauty had brought a flush to my twelve-year-old cheeks. He’d ruffled our hair and smiled at us, and I was so shy I couldn’t say a word to him. Then, one day, he was just gone. I had never heard anyone speak of him again.
Since then I’d wondered about the Lady and her companions. They acted as servants, there was no doubt about that. But who didn’t? The Lady didn’t have anyone to match her, just the family of servants she’d built.
Of course, the other immortals may have matched her. There were at least three that I’d heard of. Chaos was the closest; he was the only immortal sharing North America, and the Lady despised him for that, as well as some transgression I had yet to figure out from their long history. Maybe it was more than one transgression. The Lady had trouble forgiving a transgression in the singular, much less multiples.
Wondering about the immortals achieved little. Queen witches didn’t meet other immortals – the Lady kept her family well insulated from outsiders. And she kept herself insulated even from the family, behind layers of personal servants and the powerful Hands. Until we joined them, there was little to occupy my curiosity besides schoolwork and the family mysteries I saw in only small slices. I didn’t yet know all it meant to be a Queen witch.
When I felt composed, I returned to find my sister at the Lady’s knee, listening in rapt attention to some story or another. Wren watched the Queen of Peace with adoration, like all the other Queen witches I knew. I stood in the shadowed doorway, scuffing my toes against the stone floor.
I fought a familiar battle there in the shadows, struggling with the competing needs to be accepted by the immortal who controlled my life, and the desire to be free of the Lady and the weight of her demands. I’d never achieve freedom, but that meant I couldn’t readily indulge in the Lady’s acceptance, either. Instead, I held back, unlike my twin. That difference between us shouldn’t make me feel betrayed, but Wren’s willingness to serve the Lady meant I was along for the ride. How could I move and feel, and learn and grow – all the while knowing my life was not my own? Yet I chose a lonely path by resisting the Lady’s control. Queen witches didn’t resist, and they didn’t pout, as Aunt Ivy would surely put it. I would serve the Lady; it was the only path open to me.
One day as I walked the winding coastal road, I spied the signs of life at David’s house that I’d been awaiting for weeks. I ducked my head and passed the house, hopefully unnoticed.
We were supposed to fade to the background in the neighborhood. It wouldn’t do for folk to notice us. Odd things happened when we were around. Things small-town folk just don’t forget. Better never to have their attention on us at all.
So when I saw David’s mom in the flowerbed out front, planting a bright array of pansies, I walked around the bend and stopped behind a spruce tree. I pulled paper and pen from a pocket, and jotted down a quick note. I placed it carefully between the limbs of the spruce, in a little hollow nature had provided as our message spot. I knew David would come by later in the morning and check for one. And then he’d meet me at our cliffside hideaway.
I ran back to my house. Wren was up, and we ate breakfast together. She always slept later than me. In the early hours, while she was still in bed, I roamed free. I could meander on my own, watch the soothing waves and weather, or meet my secret friend. Melody started our lessons at nine, so before that our time was our own. The aunts had never hovered over us, not since we were small, anyhow. As soon as they could count on our self-preservation instincts, we were allowed to run all over the Cape and surrounding neighborhood.
I was the explorer. When Wren came along she mostly followed me. Other than that, she kept to herself, at home or on our property. I was far more confident and outgoing. A good thing, because with her social problems Wren would be a danger off the property by herself. And that would be just one more thing to worry about.
Wren mostly ignored me at breakfast, although she’d waited to dig in until I popped into my chair at the kitchen table. A fire burned hot in the hearth that separated the kitchen from the family room, and the smell of baking bread made my stomach rumble. I slipped my feet out of my shoes and stretched my toes against the cool stone tile, enjoying the contrast between the heat of the fire and the cool stone.
I was midway through my pile of scrambled eggs when Wren finally asked, “Find anything?”
I pulled out an agate the size of my thumbnail and set it before her. This was tradition between us. Wren was lazy and unmotivated, but that didn’t mean she lacked interest in the world, the natural world anyway. She pulled the agate closer and took another bite of her eggs as she stared at it. Her eyes darted to meet mine for a split second, about as long as she ever held eye contact. A small smile. “Lovely. She’s nice.”
That was as good a thank you as I ever got for something I brought to brighten her day.
My impatience was obvious during lessons, enough that by the time we got to math, Melody assigned me twice as many calculations as normal. I glared. She glared back. Since I couldn’t exactly argue, I got to work before I wasted any more time.
“Two sandwiches today?” she asked when I ran into the kitchen and gave her my completed assignment. Without another word she handed me a basket that I knew I’d find packed with enough lunch for two. Despite the additional math, I raised myself up on tiptoe – Melody was a tall woman – and planted a quick kiss on her cheek. She smiled without looking at me. Not quite a co-conspirator, she did know that some days I liked to take a picnic and get out for most of the afternoon. And she knew me well enough to assume this was one of those days.
I ran down the trail, taking the turn sharply. I slowed, nearing the cliff. I was pretty sure David would wait for me anyway, but it had been so long since I’d seen him, and of course I didn’t know if his parents had other plans for his afternoon.
Sure enough, when I came into our nook, a sheltered little spot set back from the cliff top with a panoramic view of the ocean, which was rather calm on this particular day, there he sat. My insides lit up like a lighthouse welcoming a ship home from sea.
I loved David.
I set the picnic basket before him, and sank to the ground cross-legged, looking him over.
“Hello, Sage.” He spoke softly, meeting my gaze with a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes. When he really smiled he did so with his eyes.
“Hello, David.” I looked at the ocean for a moment, gathering my courage to talk to him. “You were gone too long.”
He laughed, a sound that sent sparkles through my soul.
Yes, I loved him. In that first innocent blush of womanhood. We’d known each other so long, I wasn’t sure when my feelings had turned from those of a playful, adventurous girl to the fantasies of how his lips would feel on mine, but somewhere along the line that shift had occurred. I didn’t know if it was the same for him.
He tugged a bundle from behind his back, unwrapping the paper slowly, grinning like a fool. That’s how I knew he had something good.
“Books!” I squealed when I saw three Agatha Christie novels. I looked at him through wide eyes. Three hidden books would keep me busy in spare private moments for weeks. “Really?”
“Dad’s been busy at work, and Tommy’s doing a bunch of summer camps. We haven’t been coming as often. I don’t want you to get bored with me.” He laughed again. As though I would grow bored with the most exciting part of my life.
“Can you show me something?” He often asked for a bit of magic, ever since I’d shown him my secret at the age of eight. I didn’t begrudge him. Seeing it through his eyes, as such a delightful rarity, I couldn’t deny him. In fact, I always felt better about my magic after I’d brought such wonder to his face.
I pulled his hand into my lap, and looked out to sea again. The cliff dropped more than two hundred feet before meeting the waves. I’d been working on something I knew would thrill him.
I focused on the water at the base of the cliff, crashing against the rock. I couldn’t see it from where we sat, but I knew right where it was and that was all I needed. I focused on pulling it toward me, and a stream of seawater lifted on the wind to the top of the cliff, into David’s hand, where I held it in my lap.
He gasped. “That’s from down below? That’s a long way to move something, isn’t it? I haven’t seen you do that before.” His eyes shone with wonder, but there was something darker in his expression, too. I realized I’d scared him. Maybe he didn’t want to know how vast the possibilities were with my particular gifts. Not to mention with my twin at my side.
I’d never told David of twin magic. He knew of my twin, of course, though I’d taken pains to make sure they never met. He knew Wren was just as gifted, and that she was not quite right. How could I help but share that with my secret friend? He was my only completely safe place to turn, the only one who never told me to hush, and he welcomed me despite my strangeness. I saw that through his eyes, too.
Still, I don’t think I’d ever scared him before that day. He was quiet after. We ate the lunch Melody had packed and watched the waves. I grabbed his hand as he moved to leave. “Tomorrow?”
“Yes. How about a walk in the woods?” Where the stunted trees formed shadows that reminded me of monsters from the lore Melody read to us. I shivered involuntarily.
“I’ll see you at the trail at dawn.” I smiled at him, and he smiled softly back. It didn’t reach his eyes.
In the morning, he didn’t show.
Over the following year I saw David only three times. The next year his family sold the cabin. He didn’t even leave a note to say goodbye. I refused to think of the heartache, or to feel it. Over the lonely months I began to regard him as little more than a childhood imaginary friend. I’d obviously seen more in him than there was. So I outgrew him in my own mind, as I later did in deed.
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