Malevolence has an unmistakable scent, and it comes with a matching smirk. Atlantia had taken advantage of that particular evil two-for-one sale, and was waving her finds around for all to see. All of the harebrained, malicious, fantastical, delicious ideas she could have had, she decided to upset the balance and tip the scales in our favor? And why was I thinking that it was a good idea?
“Get out of my head, Mother!” I screeched, tearing my eyes away from the Queen. “Better yet, let me out of yours! It’s disturbing in here.” I shuddered, hands coming up to rub at the gooseflesh on my arms. Without making eye contact, I asked her, “Has this always been your plan?”
“Mikilas made me see that it was necessary. Remember, I lived through the earliest Purges. I existed when Hunters rose to destroy us. I bargained with them, compromised with them, and yet, they murder my sister and try to take my daughter.” Her voice wavered, then grew strong. “They must pay.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I said, my hand shooting into the air. “Question, Head Mistress?”
“What do you mean, ‘take my daughter’? I’m your daughter, and, um, I’m kinda still here.” I looked down at my new body. “Mostly.”
“You were just a child then,” my mother said quietly. I sneaked a glance in her direction, and observed the same pensive, faraway look in her eyes as before. “Mikilas’s people stormed the house, and demanded that I hand you over. They wanted, at best, to bind you and, at worst, to kill you, to put you down like some diseased animal.” A single tear ran down her face, and I thought my heart would burst. “You were just a child,” she repeated, softer than before.
I couldn’t bring myself to forgive her easily, however much I now understand. “My childhood was hell in a tutu because of your issues with other people?”
“I was trying to protect you, Kiera.” Her steel spine was back with vengeance. “You should be grateful that I taught you everything I did. My lessons kept you alive.”
“And your interference, indirectly, got me killed, so, yeah, thank you so very much, Mom. You’re a peach.”
“You brat,” she growled. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up and squealed. My throat tried to crawl up through mouth. I swallowed hard, or tried to; my mouth had gone dry, and a sudden bout of fluttering invaded my nerves. I had one name for that oppressive feeling: fear. No matter how I felt about Atlantia, my mother was a powerful, fearsome Spellcrafter, and I needed to drill that into my brain.
“Uhhh…” I coughed. “I didn’t mean that…like…that…” I trailed off and got ready to run.
“Stop.” A short, whispered command came from an unlikely source.
Sami stood. Her color hadn’t improved much, and her expression was still wonky, but she was, for all appearances, back to her usual self. “Stop,” she repeated. “I know this is all my fault. I’m not exactly sure how Mikilas relates to me─uncle’s third cousin’s nephew’s brother or what have you─but I know that this is all my fault. I shouldn’t have come.” Sami took a few hesitant steps toward me. Her hand was outstretched and, with the near incineration of my new body fresh in my mind, I shrank back, making her frown. She dropped her hand; it swung loosely at her side. She closed her eyes and bowed her head.
Immediately contrite, I smacked myself across the forehead. “It’s okay,” I sighed, some strange emotion heating up my cheeks. “I don’t hate you or anything.”
“That’s not the point, Kiera. All of this happened because of my people, my mission. You should hate me.” She raised her head and locked eyes with me. I cringed. Spying the fanatical gleam that was creeping into her gaze, I started to speak up, but Jelly Bean beat me to it.
“Hold yo’ horses, chile. Take a coupla steps back and breathe.” The ghost-woman raised her bottle. “Maybe you need some of this.”
“I don’t think she needs that, Gran─Jel─she doesn’t need that.” Kenzie averted hir eyes from hir grandmother’s spirit, crossing hir arms across hir chest. “And how much longer is this gonna take, anyhow? I’m hungry.” The kid’s stomach snarled like a starving beast in agreement. Ze flushed and muttered, “Excuse me.”
Our conference fell apart after that. Atlantia barked orders about meeting up in the kitchen, then dissolved her spell window. I sprang to my feet, eager to test this body’s coffee-drinking capabilities. Kenzie hovered over Jelly, hesitant to leave a newfound family member, but was waved away by the ghost woman’s sloshing bottle. Sami, dragging her feet, followed behind me at a distance. I could sense the hurt and guilt rolling off her in loose, uncontrolled waves. It was too strong to ignore, but I like to think that I did a bang up job of pretending.
Inside of Atlantia’s massive, eat-in kitchen, the staff had laid out a banquet-style buffet. There were sandwich fixings, cold seafood, hot soups, steamed rice and veggies. Mostly importantly, there was coffee. Three glass carafes of roasted goodness, with a variety of creams and sweeteners. I made a beeline for the beverage area, nearly knocking over Kenzie in the process. The kid didn’t complain; ze saw what had drawn my attention, shrugged, and grabbed a plate. Only Sami refrained from indulging in the feast. Her skin was still an abysmal shade of gray, and her hands shook as she pried the ceramic mug from my fingers.
“Allow me, please, Master,” she whispered. “It’s the least I can do.” I eyed her, apprehensive, but there didn’t seem to be any hidden motive. I gave her a small nod, and she moved forward, replacing the mug I’d chosen with the biggest one available, a black one with a crescent moon that asked “How Do You Spell Witch?” on it in cursive. My mouth turned up at the ends, and I felt myself relax. Everything was going to be okay.
Of course that was the exact moment that the power went out and a voice boomed, “We have you surrounded. Surrender the key, and no one will be harmed.”
I swore, loudly, and then screamed back, “If my coffee gets interrupted one more time, I’ll kill you all!”
“Famous last words,” Book whispered in my ear. “Let us just hope that you live long enough to regret them.”