“I don’t know what to think,” Aunt Hope’s voice sounded muffled. I saw the wobbling stack of clothes she was about to put in a suitcase just before I ducked back into the hall. She sounded serious, and I wanted to hear what they were talking about before they put the kid gloves back on. They had a bag out, like they were packing.
“This thing with Maj–” Aunt Ivy began.
Aunt Hope cut her off, just as she was about to say something interesting, I was sure. “We’ll have to see what’s going on when we get there. Terrible timing; you know Isabel and Rose aren’t doing well. It won’t be long before we’re discussing transition. It’s not a good time for troubles.”
“I’m just happy to get out of this house. Don’t know about this ‘disciplining our own’ idea.”
I crept to the edge of the doorway, where I could see my aunts as they spoke. What were they talking about?
“We’ll have to wait and see what the Lady tells us. She’ll have her plans, so we’d best not make our own, dear,” Aunt Hope told Aunt Ivy, who frowned and returned to evaluating the contents of her bag.
“Sage, come in here,” Aunt Ivy called. She didn’t look up until I was right behind her. The light in her eyes surprised me. I’d never seen her this…happy before. “So you’ve noticed we’re packing. We’re going to be gone a few days. I’m confident you girls can control yourselves while we’re gone. Melody will be here to look after you. Don’t tax her with pranks. Don’t run off without letting her know. In our absence treat her authority as you would treat ours.”
She seemed gleeful at the prospect of being rid of us for a few days. Not a problem for me. She mostly just glowered and ordered us around, anyway. I understood it better now than as a little kid. The aunts rarely had opportunities to be Hands. The last couple of years they’d been helping to train the eighteen-year-old Kalamar brothers who were now in twin school, but other than that their job was to raise us. We were their contribution to the family. The Lady honored her Hands with such a duty, but Ivy wasn’t suited for it. That wasn’t her fault.
“Yes, Aunt Ivy.”
“Sleeping. I’ll tell her in the morning.”
Aunt Hope fidgeted, regarding her sister through narrowed eyes. I could tell she’d lost a fight, and realized she was far from comfortable with leaving us, even under Melody’s care.
“We’ll be fine, Aunt Hope,” I told her firmly. I thrust my chin up. “We’re not little kids. We’re almost fifteen.”
She watched me for a moment. “Don’t get into trouble. The Lady wouldn’t take kindly to it.”
The warning was clear, but we were kids. A house empty of the aunts? Of course we’d go looking for trouble.
When they’d gone, I paced around the house for a while. Melody and my sister both slept, and I had the house to myself. I couldn’t remember ever having this level of freedom before. So what to do with it?
This late at night, I couldn’t think of much to do. I raided the kitchen, finding a stash of cocoa. I heated some milk and added sugar to a big mug. I added the cocoa to that and had a couple of minutes to wait before the milk would be ready. I looked at the stairs, already guilty at the track my thoughts had taken.
What was the harm?
I’d always known there were secrets in this house, and this was the perfect chance to uncover them.
A certain box called to me, all the way from Aunt Ivy’s room. I recalled one time when I’d followed Aunt Hope in to find Ivy sitting on her bed with that box. When we intruded, she promptly told us to get out. Highly suspicious. The box in question sat on the top of a large bookshelf, and I had to pull over the upholstered chair by her desk to reach it. My fingertips met smooth, dark wood. Its cold exterior was firm under my hands, and for a moment I paused, uncertain. But curiosity got the best of me. I heaved it off the shelf and almost toppled from the chair under its weight. What did she keep in here?
A three-part latch met my perusal, and it took me a moment to budge it open. My eyes wide, I stared down on a fabulous assortment of jewelry, encrusted in gems. One silver chain with an emerald pendant drew my eye, and I pulled it over my head, feeling inspired.
Suddenly, I remembered my milk, and ran down the stairs to retrieve it before it scalded. My timing perfect, I mixed my cocoa with satisfaction and ascended the stairs once again. Back in Ivy’s room, I couldn’t decide whether it was safe to sit on her bed. Would she know I’d been in here? Instead I closed the door and hauled her box of treasures onto the floor, my cocoa within reach on the nightstand.
Back to the box.
When I lifted the lid, the jewels caught my eye first, but papers made up most of the box’s contents. I touched a folded sheaf hesitantly. It wasn’t that I felt guilty for intruding. My concern was getting caught. If I changed the order of anything, or folded something wrong, she might know. These papers looked old, and like they’d been handled often over the years. Were the secrets worth the risk of Aunt Ivy coming down on me like a storm surge?
Yes. Still, I felt proud of myself for displaying a healthy dose of fear. My sister would have just plowed ahead, and taken the wrath when it came.
The first letter stopped me cold. I scanned the words of passion, color deepening on my cheeks. It was a love letter. Then I got to the signature.
One of the male Hands. He was a good ten years Aunt Ivy’s junior. Gross.
I stopped there, my entire worldview threatened. Aunt Ivy had taken Briggs as a lover. I didn’t want to know what else was in the box. I hastily refolded and replaced the stolen secret, and tugged the silver chain over my head, fingering the emerald pendant once more before shutting the lid and refastening the three-part latch. I grabbed a sweatshirt and wiped the box, trying to remove any smudges on the dark wood. I carried it back to its place.
Retreating to the darkness of my own room and the gentle sound of Wren’s breathing as she slept, I finished my cocoa, and crawled beneath the covers. Freedom was exhausting.
“They just left?” Wren asked, stretching her toes toward the fire the next morning.
“Yeah. They had to be somewhere.”
“No idea.” I paused. “Actually, I do have an idea. I think they went to California. Aunt Hope said something about ‘they’re not doing well’ and I think she was talking about the old Hands, Isabel and Rose. They’re like eighty. Then Aunt Ivy said something about ‘disciplining our own,’ but she was really just happy to be going somewhere without us.”
Wren stared at her plate of pancakes, and Melody shot me a hostile glance. She spoke up, wiping her hands on her apron and touching Wren lightly on the shoulder. My sister wasn’t a hugger. “Hope left me a note. They didn’t have time for more. The Lady needed them elsewhere. And it is probably fun for Ivy. She always loved the missions, and she grows bored without them. That’s nothing against you girls. Now let’s finish our breakfast and get lessons started.”
Melody did her best to match our usual routines. She gave me a talking to about the pan I’d left dirty on the stove, and the cocoa sprinkled on the counter, but at least she was good-natured about it.
Late in the afternoon, toward the end of our lessons, Melody gave each of us a lengthy writing assignment and grabbed her purse and keys.
“You girls just stay inside and complete your schoolwork. I have to run to the store.” The nearest grocery store was almost twenty miles up the coast in a bigger town. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Wren nudged me as soon as Melody was out the door. I knew what she was thinking; that the drive and the shopping would take more than an hour. It was the perfect opportunity to get away with…something.
“At least wait until she’s out of the driveway.” I shook my head. “We’re sure to get caught.”
For ages we’d wanted to try jumping from the two-story roof. Not jumping, exactly. The trick was to engage our powers and float down. Unfortunately, we hadn’t learned that skill, not yet.
“No better way than to try!” Wren squealed. She dashed for the stairs. At the top of the flight, she pulled the cord for the attic hatch and scrambled up the ladder.
I didn’t bother to argue. We’d been over this. It took both of us, and despite what our elders told us, we felt ready to try.
The attic window looked out on the sloping roof, and we carefully crept out to the edge. Nerves ran riot like hummingbirds fluttering madly in my stomach. We looked down on the lawn, with the bower between the cliff and us.
“Are you ready?” Wren asked me softly.
I answered truthfully. “Ready as I’ll ever be. Let’s do a test.”
I stood next to her, and we extended our hands so they were nearly touching. I pressed out with my psychokinetic power, and felt a slight rebound as my power encountered the solidity of her form. Simultaneously, I felt Wren engage her power. We both rocked on our feet, but neither of us took a step. We had learned a decent degree of control. “And the roof?”
We both engaged and lifted off the rooftop until we hovered a few inches above it. If I pressed harder I’d rise farther. Engaging with Wren, our hands nearly touching, we were stable, but I knew if I tried this on my own I’d be unsteady in the air, like an astronaut without gravity. It took much better control to fly alone than with your twin.
“Now are you ready?” Wren challenged me.
In the interest of healthy sibling rivalry, I couldn’t lose face. I nodded. “Ready.”
We stepped off the roof, and fell. Plummeted, actually. I felt for Wren, but lost my sense of direction and couldn’t tell where she was. We couldn’t help each other, but at least we weren’t powerless. I shoved my power hard against the ground milliseconds before I hit dirt, landing on my knees with a grunt.
Wren screamed somewhere behind me, and I turned to find her. She clutched her wrist against her body and whined.
I hustled to her side and got a look at the injury. It didn’t look like much, but I didn’t have x-ray vision. It might be broken. She certainly wasn’t moving it. She panted, her eyes wide and shocked. I clutched her shoulder and guided her inside.
“Melody will be back in an hour, max. I’m grabbing ice, and you’re sitting on the couch until she gets here. We are in so much trouble!”
“Maybe I’ll be okay. Maybe she won’t know.” Wren spoke with the optimism of the doomed. If she had to see a healer, we both knew the Lady would hear about it. And then Wren was toast.
Melody came back sooner than we expected, but Wren’s wrist had already started to swell.
“What did you girls get up to? I was barely gone an hour.” Melody wasn’t exactly composed. Her face flushed as her mind apparently went into overdrive. She knew the repercussions of us using magic without supervision.
She ran to the telephone. I couldn’t hear much besides the constant hum of her speech. I just hoped she wasn’t trying to get a message to the Lady.
Wren didn’t look good. She sat still on the couch looking at her wrist with abject despair.
“Into the car, girls.” Melody came back in with her car keys once again in hand.
We did as we were told. I helped Wren into the back, and ran around to the passenger side.
“Where are we going?” I asked, opening my mouth despite my better judgment.
“To see a friend. A nurse.”
“Not a healer?” My world rolled back onto its axis as relief coursed through me. I took a deep breath, trying not to cry.
“If it’s broken, we won’t be able to keep it from the Lady. So let’s just see how this goes, shall we?”
She was right. A break would be obvious and require a bunch of recovery time. Even with Melody’s help, we wouldn’t be able to hide it from the aunts, who would never hide anything from the Lady.
We drove about twenty minutes up the coastal highway before Melody took a tight turn onto a gravel road. We passed a few houses, widely spaced, and the ocean view popped out as we came around a curve. Melody stopped at a two-story cabin, its cedar shake worn gray by salt air and storm. A nice house, typical for the area. It could have been a vacation house, but for the abundance of blooms pouring out of old barrels, and the cushioned chairs turned just so on the porch. Those things called it out as someone’s home among the vacation houses.
I turned my gaze toward the ocean. A wide strip of beach spread out beyond a rocky outcropping. I could see a little stream sparkling in the distance as it wound its way over the dark gray sand to the waves.
A tall and striking middle-aged woman came out onto the porch. Melody went up the steps and the woman kissed her before waving my sister inside.
I stopped in my tracks at the sight of the kiss. It wasn’t the two women thing; it was that I’d never seen Melody that way, as an individual with desires that had nothing to do with caring for us. Suddenly, I understood what she’d given up to live with us. How lonely must her life be?
That made me think of Aunt Ivy, and the secret I’d learned just last night. The Lady didn’t let them love openly. They served her with everything they had. At this moment, that seemed exceedingly cruel.
It turned out Wren had sprained her wrist. Rotating ice, and heat, and wrapping the joint to avoid jolting it were Angela’s recommendations. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we got back in the car. Neither Wren nor I mentioned the kiss. I wondered if my sister had even noticed.
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