School started tomorrow, and he had never, ever, not since kindergarten, been so happy to be going back to school.
At the moment, he was cornered by his Great-Aunt Rosaria, who was, he had to admit, one of his favorite relatives – normally. Right now, he didn’t want to see another Family woman as long as he lived.
It had started with his mother, because nobody was going to argue her precedent, and then with his grandmother, because Eva was too polite to argue with her. And then Eva, Beryl and Chalce and even Amy, his sisters taking turns asking him questions that ranged from ridiculous (mostly Amy) to far too penetrating (Beryl),
Most of their family branch lived within three wide country blocks. The rest lived not all that far away, Uncle Hector and his wife Jennifer being the furthest at a thirty-minute drive by highway. Heck, there was even a very small cadet branch of the family, split three generations ago but growing with glacial slowness, living up on the lake in a nice row of cottages.
Stone was fairly certain he’d seen every woman over the age of twelve – some younger – and maybe a quarter of the men in both families. All he wanted to do was climb up in the tallest tree he could find and never come down.
“Come on.” Great-Aunt Rosaria offered him her hand. “You like Basil’s, right? The little diner down on the corner?”
Stone blushed. What he liked was Basil’s daughter Samantha, but he wasn’t going to admit that to his aunt, to any of his aunts. At least if Samantha was working, she wouldn’t look at him funny for being there with his old aunt. She seemed to get it – the family, the magic, the whole thing – without him ever have said a thing about it.
Rosaria patted his shoulder. “I thought so. Well, that’s a good thing, too. Healthy – at your age or any. So let’s take a little drive down there, shall we?”
“All right, Great-aunt Rosaria.” It’s not like he could say anything else.
It wasn’t until they were in Rosaria’s surprisingly new and surprisingly fast little Chevy coupe that she actually looked at him, the way only some of Stone’s female relatives could, and grinned. “Besides,” she said, out of nowhere, “If we’re out at Basil’s, nobody’s going to bother you about your little, ah, ‘accident’, now are they? You know the family doesn’t talk about such things in public, even if Basil spends so much time feeding us he’s practically family.”
Stone stared at her for a minute. “You’re rescuing me?” Or, at least, she thought she was rescuing him. “Why?”
“Well… let’s just say I have my reasons. Listen, young man. You were going to have the power whether or not you bit a rabbit. Heck, for all we know, Zenobia being who she was, she put that rabbit where it was just so that eventually you would bite it – but either way, Stone, you already had power.”
He looked out the window, shifting in the suddenly-uncomfortable seat. “I’m not supposed to.”
“Oh, the family has done many, many foolish things, but foremost among them is that ridiculous belief. You have power. You won’t be the Aunt, not with so many willing female candidates – and I’m sorry, but Beryl is just a stronger witch than you are – but that has never meant ‘without power’, any more than having children has meant it, or any other of a dozen things. It just means you aren’t the conduit of all the Family’s power.”
“You’re not upset?”
“Stone, dear, eventually I will tell you the story, how I learned how much malarkey and balderdash is involved in such family myths – but not today. Today, I imagine you don’t want anything to do with a batty old lady’s batty old theories.” She winked cheerfully at him.
He did not tell her to keep her eyes on the road, because Stone valued his life. But he did clutch to the armrest.
“Speaking of the power, that’s something to pay attention to. Notice the relatives to whom little inconveniences just don’t happen – and the ones who get more than their fair share. Notice the relatives who have too much good luck – there is such a thing, I promise you – and the ones who never seem to get a break.”
“So, like Jordan?” His younger cousin had never made any team, never been picked for anything, despite being a phenomenal athlete.
“Jordan is a lovely example, yes. When you get a chance to do so quietly – do you have a Tarot deck?”
“I have what Aunt Eva calls a cheater deck,” he admitted. He hadn’t even told his mother that.
“We ought to get you set up with a proper deck. We should have someone paint you one, I know a cousin of a cousin… but in the meantime, the cheater deck will do. Do a spread on Jordan, if you can — nearby but not in sight is best for this sort of thing.”
Stone took a moment to come up with a response. He stared out the window, watching the cows and the fields go by. “Aunt Rosaria… are you giving me homework?”
“It does sound that way, doesn’t it?” He couldn’t look at her right now, couldn’t, but her voice sounded amused.
“And you — you want to have someone paint me a real deck?” The family used hand-painted decks for almost all of their card divination, and painting the decks was a very specific skill — like Aunt Zenobia’s animals. Nobody else had made animals quite like hers, and most people didn’t try.
“Well, everyone knows you get better results with a hand-painted deck. You did know that, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, of course. It’s just…”
“I won’t ask Eva to teach you — even though we both know she’s already been doing just that. She needs to train the next Aunt, and a back-up — don’t look at me like that, nephew.”
Stone had whipped around at the word “back-up.” “Beryl…”
“Easy now, Stone, easy.” Rosaria patted his leg in a manner that was supposed to be soothing, he thought and, much to his surprise, actually settled him down.
The power didn’t reside just in the Aunts, he reminded himself.
“My sister,” he complained, still not as calm as he imagined she’d like him to be.
“Your sister is a nice smart girl who can take care of herself. But she might take herself right into a baby or a marriage if your mother or your aunts and uncles don’t stop pushing her, and you know that as well as I do. Or, heaven and the stars forbid, there might be an accident. We need back-ups, Stone, and Evangaline needs to teach them. It’s just reasonable.”
Stone sighed. “Reasonable,” he agreed. “I don’t have to like it.”
“Of course not. Liking things is never required. But it helps. Like training you.”
“Training me? What?” He stared at Rosaria, momentarily distracted from the theoretical threat to his sister’s wellbeing. “I’m a boy.”
“I hadn’t noticed, back when I changed your diapers, or what with that little weed of a beard you have coming in,” Rosaria answered dryly. “You’re a boy, yes. And I’m old enough and crotchety enough that nobody but Evangaline is going to naysay me on this. And do you think she will?”
Stone swallowed. “I — I don’t think so? Aunt Eva likes me, I think.”
“As well she should. There is nothing wrong with you, young Stone, and there is a good deal right with you. So I am going to train you. That is,” and here Aunt Rosaria actually looked uncertain for a moment, “if that is what you want?”
Stone held out his hand and thought about the power flowing through it. He had a lot of it, he knew, and not just because he’d bitten that rabbit. And sometimes, when he wasn’t paying attention, it bubbled out in strange ways. “My mom,” he said slowly, “she said I had to hide the power, or I would end up in trouble. That sometimes the family kicked out people who had the power but weren’t the Aunt, or sometimes they, um, they took the power away —”
“That,” Rosaria cut him off sharply, “is a disgusting ritual and one that has only been used once in all the history of our family. However,” she added, suddenly far more softly, “I would ask your sister — Beryl, that is — to borrow her necklace someday. Or her cat. There are worse things the family can do to you than kick you out or bind your power, and they have done them all at one point or another.”
Stone found his hands clenching into fists. “I don’t like the necklace. I haven’t, right from the beginning. Something is wrong about it. Something is… Off.”
“There is, indeed, but it can’t hurt your sister nor you. He can’t hurt anyone anymore, that’s why he’s a necklace. But think about some of your less pleasant relatives-”
“Which flavor?” Shit, he wasn’t supposed to say things like that in front of Aunt Rosaria. That was the “kids” hanging out gossiping sort of chat, not the kind of thing you said to your great-aunt. He stared out the car window, wondering why it was taking so long to go down a quiet country road.
She snorted. “Not nosy, not smelly, and, at the moment, not a faker. No, I’m talking about the ones who feel like everything you do is their business and their say-so.” Her hands were on the wheel and she was driving. They were even going a reasonable speed. And yet he was pretty sure he’d already seen that cow twice.
“I thought you said not nosy.” Stone focused on the part that he had a chance of understanding.
Rosaria indulged him. “There’s nosy like your Aunt Tasha, who wants to know who you’re kissing and why. Then there’s nose like your Aunt — no, she’s your cousin. Stephanie. Who thinks she ought to be telling you who to kiss. And why.”
Stone gave that a moment of consideration. “So, we’re talking about people who want to run my life. More so than the rest of the family.” Damnit, he was doing it again. What was it about Aunt Rosaria that turned him into an idiot?
“Exactly.” She turned and beamed at him. There was that same cow again. Still chewing on the same plot of grass, too. “So. Think about them. Now imagine them with the power to, for instance, create another necklace like your sister’s.”
Stone swallowed. “They would be shutting up everyone they didn’t agree with. And they never agree with anyone.”
“Exactly. Now, as I was saying. There are any number of awful things that can happen, but I am old and crotchety and you are young and strong, and we are not going to let them happen to you. Not this time.” She glared at him for a moment, but Stone recognized the look. Sometimes Beryl had a similar expression. It meant her anger had nothing to do with him.
Still, he swallowed. “Yes, Aunt Rosaria.”
She patted his leg one more time. “Now, then. I might have put this off longer, but you’ve gone and chewed on one of Zenobia’s trinkets, and that means I have to hurry a bit about the training. The heavens and the demons alone know what she got up to, and I don’t want something sprouting out of you at school or some such.”
Stone twitched. There were family stories of things like that happening, but they were all rumors of something that happened in another time, somewhere far away, to someone’s distant cousin. “I don’t — yeah, no. That would be horrid.”
“Your school is a little more in the pocket of the family than is probably a good idea, but still, yes. So I’m going to train you, and anyone who has a problem with it can bring those problems to my door. And I expect you to tell them that, young man, in that so-diplomatic way I know you’re so good at.”
“…Yes, Aunt Rosaria.” They were finally turning off the back-road and onto the main road into town. Stone let out a breath quietly.
“And since I’m teaching you—” Aunt Rosaria sounded far too pleased with herself and a little amused. Stone held his breath again. “Yes, I’m giving you homework. Your cousin Jordan. Start with the Tree spread and then, if that doesn’t tell you enough, move on to some of the more esoteric spreads. And then, for good measure, do the same for your sister. Not Beryl, Chalcedony. Got it?”
Stone stared at her. He wasn’t any less cornered, he realized — maybe more so, because Aunt Rosaria was a bit terrifying — but he wasn’t stuck, and he wasn’t being told he had to control himself, or his magic, or anything. “Yes, ma’am.”
Hopefully, he’d actually get his diner visit out of this, but if not, he supposed the look on people like Stephanie’s face when they realized Great-Aunt Rosaria was teaching him would be compensation enough for a missed lunch.