Tag Archive | prompter: sauergeek

The Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Written to Sauergeek’s prompt to my new “WTF?” Prompt Call.  

I am picturing this as the same era/world as The Trouble With… (Chickens, assignments, ferrets, and so on)

It wasn’t, exactly, a dance.

That is, it was never a dance that would performed in high society, in the dance halls of the Dames and Lords.

It was a dance that was born out of too much whisky, the sort of stuff that ambitious university students brewed in the abandoned dormitories.  It was born out of the awkward one-woman-to-ever-seven-men ratio that was common on the University campus – especially those sections where students were brewing bathtub hooch and coming up with interesting ways to “Age” it without getting caught.  And it was born out of one woman’s very determined urge that, if she was going to be in experimental sciences, she was going to get dances, no matter what her uncle said on the matter.

It was neither a tango nor a foxtrot, but it was face-paced, steamy, and done best when more than a little intoxicated.  It was something like a square dance, except that it was done with one woman at the heart of eight men.  And it was quickly declared against the rules by the university, illegal by the government, and immoral by two different churches.

It was so wildly popular that before she graduated, the young woman responsible for the craze wrote an anonymous tell-all book, the sales of which funded her experimentations for the next fifty years.


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Kaijune: Little Monsters

Written in the setting/time of my 101 Apoc Nights story.

They had been passing bathtub hooch for hours and the fire had burned down to coals, on which they were roasting whatever they still have to roast.  And then one old woman, her hair white and her skin a maze of wrinkles, set down her jar with a thump.

“I tell you,” she told them, “the monsters are scary and the places where time goes backwards, yeah, those are pretty scary.  But the worst thing I ever found – and I am not joking about that – was a lizard not quite as long as my arm.”

Now, she continued, I could tell you horror stories about this area I was in.  It had been a city and then it had been a ruin and now it was four little cities around a whole bunch of ruin that only the bravest went into.

Because – and this was the kicker – because some asshole had released a series of giant poisonous lizards into the city back in the end times.  Someone had, the Lord only knows why, let some asshole would-be god watch Godzilla, I guess.

So that thing had been killed.  But the problem is – the problem was the great-dane-and-a-chihuahua problem, I suppose, but the end result was baby lizards.

And those baby lizards had been wiped out too, but… well you get the idea.  It turns out that, in the center of this down, one lizard in ten has a chance of having flaming acid breath.

And I don’t mean just a little puff like a thing that small ought to give.  No.  No, I mean, these things could spit out a cloud of acid fire like their great-grandmama had.

And that, my friends, is why that one city split into four is the scariest I’ve ever been into.

She leaned back and gulped her whisky.  “’Cause let me tell you, you pick up a baby lizard just like seven others and this one happens to put a hole in the nearest wall… you stop thinking oh cute and start running really damn fast.  And those things could show up anywhere.  No crashing, no roaring, nothing.  Just a little squeak and a belch.”

She rubbed where her eyebrows had been.  “But I didn’t lose anything I couldn’t stand to lose.  What about you, my friends?”

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Early for Snow

My Giraffe (Zebra) Call is open!

Written to sauergeek prompt.

❄️

It seemed like summer had left the door open and autumn was sneaking in. Xarissa threw on a coat and went outside to pull in her plants.  The weather ap was calling for a hard frost tonight – never mind that it was mid-September and even this far north, not the sort of time that you got frost.  It wasn’t supposed to frost for at least another month!

Tomatoes, peppers – she picked everything that was full-sized, regardless of ripeness.  They’d ripen on the counter or they wouldn’t.  Cabbage, broccoli – the potatoes could wait.  The carrots might be happier for a wait.

The wind was blowing damp and cold in her face. She turned to adjust her coat – and realized it wasn’t just wind, but snow.  Heavy snow, the sort that shouldn’t come till maybe early November, coming down so hard she could barely see the house.

With a muttered “screw it” to the rest of the plants, she hurried back to her house, skidding inside with a shove from a wind blast, and turned to look out the window at the weather.

The snow had moved from flying sideways to flying upward.

“That is just not right.”  

She pulled on her winter boots, dug out her mittens, found a scarf and a hat and her long winter coat.  “By the time I’m dressed,” she muttered, “it’ll be spring again.”

It was still upside-down winter when she stepped back outside, the snow heading at a diagonal up towards the old maple tree.  Something was wrong; something was definitely wrong.

She dragged her fire pit out between the two maples, the old and the new, and piled every bit of yard waste she could in there.  She wanted smoke more than heat, lots of smoke.  

With hands made clumsy by cold and feeling like her face was going to freeze off, she managed to light the fire.  The smoke blew upwards with the snow, pushing upwards above the tree.  

Xarissa looked at the shape outlined by the smoke.  It was big, too big, and it was high up in the air, and all the snow was flying right into it.

“We are going to have to have a talk about your timing,” she muttered, “whatever you are.  Shoo!  Shoo!”

Startled, the invisible outline seemed to dart further away.  The snow subsided, falling back to the ground the way it should.

“’Winter is coming,’ my ass,” Xarissa muttered.  “Someone went and summoned winter.  Damn kids…”


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EAT ME

Two takes on sauergeek‘s prompt, and continuing to work out the kinks in cross-posting

🌿

None of the plants in Addergoole’s grotto were, technically, toxic.  That is, they might cause you to have convulsions, visions, insomnia, narcolepsy, or possibly just a warm and fuzzy feeling, but they would not kill you — or, at least, they wouldn’t kill an ordinary human or Ellehemaei child.  Some of the Changes, normal air would kill them, and Valentina could not speak for her plant life in those cases.

She enjoyed encouraging experimentation and enjoyed more watching the results of the experimentation.  After all, every plant in the grotto was the result of“hey, what happens if…?” — Hers and Laurel Valerian’s, mostly, although students other staff had put in their ideas from time to time.  Isabella Even-hand in the kitchen had the most brilliant ideas.  Most of her plants lived up in the orchard or the sunlight gardens, but there were a couple, including the Angry Peach, that deserved their place in the grotto — and made the most aggressive desserts.

“Hey.”  One spikey-haired first-year student flopped down on the soft moss next to another first-year, lanky and dark-clad and serious-looking.  “Have you tried chewing on the purple leaves?  They make sort of a tingling feeling, and then you just don’t feel anything at all for a while.”

Emotional numbness, Valentina wrote, in her unseen perch up in a prickly-pear tree. She’d been growing the purple-leafed plant for its bark and the bast fibers in its stem.

“Don’t feel anything at all?  Sounds better than those yellow berries.  Give it here.”

Long-term effects?  She’d have to keep an eye on these two.

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Crayon Bingo: Black Coral

My first story for Crayon Bingo! In my Things Unspoken ‘Verse.

The necklace had traveled a very long way, over the course of what Hideria thought was probably nearly a century.

It was gorgeous, as a matter of course; it had been owned by the Dowager Queen of Kelanthia, who was renowned for having excellent taste, and it had been stolen by the Pirate Duchess of the Golden Sea, who had very expensive tastes, if not quite always so excellent.

And it shone from the inside out with a sort of magical glow that only some people – and presumably the Pirate Duchess had been one of them – could see.

It was made of black coral, the sort of thing you never found anywhere outside of the Northern Sea, and the sort of thing that was punishable by death in at least three cities on that sea to remove from its waters.

But not in Scheffenon. No, there was much that was not illegal in Scheffenon, and among those things was the theft – no, Hideria corrected herself, that was judgmental thinking and not what she needed right now – the taking of the corals out of the Northern sea.

She had acquired the piece because it sang to her, and it sang to her because she had the sort of ears that could hear, as her mother had once said. She would have made a very good agent of the empire, but her interests lay elsewhere, and she (and her mother and her mother’s mother) had gone to great lengths to convince the Empire’s service of that.

Getting the necklace had taken her three years. She had broken laws in many cities, bent several Imperial laws and regulations, and ended up on the wrong side of two police forces – but that, in her line of avocation, was nothing all that new. Now she had it; she’d managed to get out of the city she’d taken it from, and she was riding on horse-back because, in her experience, the relay stables were far more understanding about things like “I seem to have misplaced my paperwork” and “My name is Joanna Sea,” that is, “I don’t want to give you a proper name but I’m not going to make you pretend I’m giving you a real name, either.”

Stagecoaches liked their paperwork. The railways pretty much insisted on such things. The relays, however, did a brisk business in providing transportation for people who were, for one definition or another, like Hideria.

The horse under her was worth what she’d paid for it. It moved almost like a machine, smooth and well-oiled and without stopping.

She did her part, whispering the oldest songs in its ears when she stopped to water it, giving it the breaks it needed, patting it down and telling it how lovely it was. And in turn, when she told it she needed more running, right now, it obliged her willingly.

The running was because of some local polizia. She was probably still fine with the Emperor’s agents and sheriffs and soldiers. While she had bent some laws and broken some others – she always bent and broke laws, because the laws weren’t really made for people who did what she did – when it came down to it, she would walk up to the Emperor himself and tell him what she’d done, and have no fear nor shame.

But the polizia, they were a different matter, and so she – and the horse – ran.

When she had to trade the beast in at a way-stable, she thanked it, and patted it down herself, and paid the stable extra. She did not stay in the inn there – too many traceable elements – but in another one, off of her route and out of the jurisdiction of the specific polizia she was concerned with (or who were concerned with her).

While she slept, the necklace sang to her. It told her of the deep, dark sea, and the dark, sharp creatures one might find there. It told her of whole homes and castles under the waters, where one could be Queen, for a price. It told her of cast wealth hidden just under the edges of those underwater cliffs, where if one could hold one’s breath long enough, one could be wealthier than anyone had any right to be.

She woke in the wee hours with the urge to run into the water and fling herself into its depths, and wondered how the Dowager Queen of Kelanthia or the Pirate Duchess of the Golden Sea had managed to stay alive, wearing this thing, holding it.

She stroked its rough edges. “I’m taking you home of my own volition,” she told it softly. “I choose to return you. You needn’t take me under with you.”

The necklace quieted, and she could, for a little while, sleep.

And in the morning, she was on the run again.

The Empire was huge. It spanned the continent and then some, save a couple pockets of resistance that were allowed to continue, likely because they were too far away and too isolated to be properly subjugated. Hideria had a long way to go to get to Scheffenon.

And the necklace sang to her the entire time.

It told her of riches and power. It told her of owning the sun, of climbing to the moon. It sang to her until she muffled it in silk, in burlap, in the most magic-proof box she could find.

Still it sang.

Her riding became more frenzied. She slept only a few hours a night. She hurried, hurried, to bring the necklace to its home, to put it back in the Northern Sea.

Still the necklace sang to her. It told her of bloody death, of violence, of starvation. It told her of riding off of a cliff, of being eaten by a bear, of being captured by the polizia and never released, forgotten in some dank, dark cell somewhere. It told her of being helpless, of being lost, of being nothing.

After a week of riding, she stopped sleeping altogether.

After four days of that, she started seeing things out of the corners of her eyes, monsters and gods and piles of gold.

On the fifth day, she rode into Scheffenon.

She finally understood, but it would do no good for the necklace. She had finally realized what it wanted.

It sang to her of the end of every thing, and she rented a boat and rowed out into the sea. It told her she would drown out here, wanting for gold, wanting for riches. Still she rowed.

It screamed in her ears and she stoppered them with cotton, knowing it would do no good.

Deep, deep into the Northern sea the black coral dropped, and even then she could still hear the singing.

Hideria collapsed in her boat and slept until a fishing scow found her.

“It didn’t want to be returned,” she told the fisherman. “It liked being out in the world. It liked spreading its poison. But now it’s gone.”

The fisherman patted her shoulder, understanding all too well. After all, he’d come of age on the Northern sea. “For now,” he assured her. “It’s gone for now.”

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Well, You See, It seemed Reasonable… a story of Science!

“Well, you see…”

Hank Honore, Dr. Hank Honore, was nervous.

That was not all that abnormal in the lab, but Dr. Honore moved like something was going to eat him, quick darting motions that settled down only when nobody was looking at him.

Cara thought it was cute, in the sort of way that made her want to eat him. Alex was not as impressed.

Of course, Alex was never impressed.

“Do continue,” Alex urged.

“Ah! Well, you see. It turns out they’ve got almost all the right skills already. And since we were working with the Moreau model anyway, it was easy enough to tweak it.”

“What project were you working on again?” Cara was supposed to know that, but she couldn’t remember the Moreau model being in play recently.

“Oh, Dr. Westfield asked me to help her, and since I’m new, well, I help wherever I can. Want to be useful, you know. So anyway, Califord Island, that project we were trying to get off the ground as a resort? It was having some traffic snags, and we didn’t want real police because, well… issues.”

“Time to get to the point,” Alex offered lazily.

“Yes, yes, ah. Well. It turns out that if you go with mostly heron and just a little bit of human DNA, you end up with a very nice traffic cop… as long as you don’t mind peck marks in the cars sometimes.”

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Hooked In

This is written to sauergeek‘s commission and a request for more about how Beryl’s father got hooked into the family.
🎣
In high school, there had been a couple people — two in every year, three in the class that were freshmen when Mark was a senior — that were just a little bit different.

Not “didn’t follow the social conventions quite right” different, not “their accent says they didn’t grow up around here” different, but somehow just a little strange, despite conventional clothes and conventional haircuts.

To himself, Mark thought of them as “shiny” or, sometimes “sparkly,” but since none of his buddies seemed to notice — and none of the sparkly people seemed to notice him — he thought little more of it.

Then came college.

Freshman year, first semester, Survey of American Literature I. She sat down next to him and smiled, and Mark was hooked.

She wasn’t beautiful, he supposed. Amy Marconi, sitting behind her, looked like a model and smiled like she wanted to show him what was under her sweater. But this girl, she sparkled.

He introduced himself awkwardly, and she was kind about his clumsiness. He offered to study with her, and she accepted — if they did it as a group with her cousin and his girlfriend.

Well, that wasn’t too un-promising, so Mark agreed. Anything to spend a little more time around that sparkle.

It was three years and more than a hundred dates — study and otherwise — before he admitted that the sparkle had been what first caught his eye. By that point, he’d met her sister, her cousins, and her parents, and he had a pretty good idea that her family had the biggest concentration of sparkle on the Eastern Seaboard.

She’d smiled at him. It was a small thing, but he could see the way it lit up her mood behind the expression. “You can sense the — ah, the sparkle?”

He didn’t say can’t everyone? because by now he’d learned that most people were completely blind and obstinate when it came to such things. Instead, he said, “your Aunt Asta has a sparkle that defies belief, but yours is more mobile and, ah, multicolored, and your cousin Suzanne has some wild night-time fireflies.”

She’d stared for several minutes. For a moment, he thought that mentioning the cousin had been a bad idea. No girl wanted the guy she was dating to notice her cousins, after all, especially not one who liked to wear scandalous things the way Suzanne did.

“You know,” she said slowly, and he braced for impact, “this means I’m going to have to marry you.”

It was so out of the realm of anything that he’d been expecting that Mark stared at her with his mouth open for a minute, possibly as much as three minutes. At least she didn’t seem surprised. At least her smile was glittering with mischief and not with anger.

“I,” he cleared his throat. “I, ah.” He rubbed his hands on his jeans. “I was hoping you’d say that. Well, I hadn’t asked, yet, and I’m not sure I’d really thought I had a chance, but I was hoping if I asked, you’d say yes, and—”

She kissed him, which blissfully saved him from having to say anything else.

“That kiss.” His wife was gone for the evening — a girls’-night-out with her sisters — which left Mark alone with his children; his youngest was at a sleepover, which left only the kids Mark felt he could be a little more honest with, and Chalcedony wasn’t really listening, which meant Mark was talking primarily to his two children who were brimming over with the sparkle.

“I mean, let’s be honest, the moment I met your mother, I was hooked.” His smile was crooked. He never minded being hooked, but sometimes he did feel a bit like a fish on a line. “The minute I realized people had sparkle, I was hooked. But when she kissed me…”

Beryl’s expression was thoughtful, like she’d never quite been kissed like that. Good, thought Mark, uncharitably. It was too early to lose her to some boy.

Stone, on the other hand, looked like he wanted to know what it felt like, and like he knew what it didn’t feel like.

Mark coughed. “So I was hooked when I met her. I was reeled in when she kissed me. But then I met the family…”

Even Chalcedony took part in the long groan. They all loved their family, of course they did. That didn’t mean they were ignorant of what their family was like, especially to outsiders, especially to men.

“Did they know?” Beryl leaned forward. “You have the sight. I mean, I think that’s what you said. You see the spark. Sparkle? I kind of like sparkle better. That’s not common, is it? I don’t know many people who can do it in the family…”

“I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t related to the family who could do it, besides me. Doesn’t mean there aren’t people who can. I mean, there’s plenty of people not related to us —”

“As far as we know.” Stone’s tone was dramatic. Then again, Stone’d had plenty of run-ins with the family lately.

“—not related to the family, as far as we know, who have some sort of power. It’s not all us — you. It just seems like it sometimes.”

“Sometimes it seems like they want us to believe that, or like the gr- like the older generation believes it, though,” Beryl offered.

“Well, the grannies like to have their story be the right one.” There was no use pretending that wasn’t the case. “And they do hold on to power. Sometimes I’ve wondered if they hold on to too much — but that’s a story for another day.” He didn’t need to be sharing family conspiracy theories with his kids. They had enough to worry about. “Anyway — no, the family aren’t the only ones with the power.”

“But…” Stone’s dramatic tone was gone. Now he was speaking slowly and thoughtfully, picking out his words and working through his theory while he presented it. “You said Mom said she ‘had to marry you.’”

“That was just—” Mark shook his head. He tried not to lie to his kids, even when it was uncomfortable. “All right, I like to think that your mother would’ve married me anyway. But yes. I always did get the impression that there was a little familial pressure going on there.”

“So — they like to have people with the power marry in. And men who marry in, uh. People who marry in, really…”

“They can get railroaded, yeah.” There was no arguing that point.

“So maybe not everyone with power is in the family?” Stone looked mildly sick. “But they want everyone to be in the family?”

“That…” Mark spoke slowly, considering that from all angles. “That would make far too much sense.”
🐠

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Love Meme: Jin and Junie

The meme is here: Give me the names of two characters and I will tell you why character A loves character B.

Here is [personal profile] sauergeek‘s first prompt.

Jin had been just old enough to be annoyed by this whole little-sibling thing when his mother had put Junie in his arms.

He hadn’t instantly fallen in love with her. She was small and fragile and loud. He, at that point, had very little interest in things small and fragile and loud.

It was weeks later, when he found out that he could make very minor illusions and had to show them off to someone, that’s when things changed.

His mother was brewing a tisane and couldn’t be disturbed; his father was reading a large tome in the library and looked like disturbing him would not go well. He could wait for dinner – but Jin did not want to wait for dinner. (Patience was a hard- and late-earned skill for him.)

So he decided to show the new baby the illusion.

And she cooed. She reached out for it with her chubby little hands. She was thrilled. Jin felt amazing. This tiny little thing, this thing that cried all the time and nothing at all seemed to soothe her – she liked his illusions.

That cemented it. From that day on, Junie was Jin’s first audience for every illusion, every spell (that was safe to her, of course; he kept the others to a room behind the garage where no-one else came), every cantrip.

And, eventually, Junie found out Jin’s secrets, too.

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January by the Numbers 28: Everyone Eats Everything, a ficlet

January by the numbers continues deep into February…

From sauergeek‘s prompt Everyone eats everything: a ficlet, although more of a start of a story than a story.

As far as strange rules and regulations go, the colonies usually didn’t rate too far up there. When they were colonies, at least, they had far too much to worry about to spend time making rules, other than the very direct: “everybody works” sort of regulations. It was only as time went on and they found themselves in situations where their original survival-based rules were insufficient that most places started coming up with more and more elaborate rules.

Egdarton Seven was a little unique in this matter. It was settled by a small, closed group – one of the few cases where that was allowed, but there was a trend for that around that time, social or avocation groups gathering together and filling a colony. It worked best if the group had wide enough skills to fill all the positions, because one or two outsiders in specialized, necessary positions led to some pretty bad social dynamics on some colonies.

Egdarton Seven, however, had none of the common problems, but it did have a long-standing hobby group with a wide range of skillsets, both within and outside the hobby group and, more, a wide range of already-extant rules and the sort of personalities who enjoyed enforcing said rules. The rules you need to know were posted at their rudimentary spaceport, and woe betide the visiting ship’s-crew or scientist who didn’t read and follow the rules. For a first offense they might be warned, if the person who caught them was feeling generous. For a second offense, they’d be escorted back to their ship and politely told not to come back.

(“What happens if someone part of the community breaks one of those rules?” asked a disgruntled scientist who hadn’t understood the severity or sincerity of the Oxford-Comma rule. The persons escorting the scientist to the ship had clucked in disapproval and not answered. If the scientist had been, perhaps, an anthropologist instead of a xenobiologist, things may have gone very differently for the colony on Egdarton Seven. Certain things were not actually allowed, no matter how they were written into the colony’s charter.)

The one rule that threw almost every visitor, the one rule that got more people evicted from their station, was one that every single member of the colony agreed on wholeheartedly: Everyone Eats Everything. In practice, this meant that if you hated a dish, you could eat a tablespoon-sized scoop of it and be done, but in theory it meant that every person on Egdarton Seven was eating the same things, and that the entire colony ate together.

Like every other rule on the colony, no official explanation for this edict was ever offered, although one teenaged member did like to whisper, melodramatically and none too seriously, “poison!” any time any visitor asked.

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After the Kinging, a commissioned continuation of the Aunt Family

This is written to sauergeek‘s commissioned continuation of King(Maker) Cake and King for a Day, a story of the Aunt Family.
👑
Stone was cornered.

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.

👑

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