Good art by oldestcharm

Ruby nodded. “We’re both just broken for a while, I guess.” Lucinda took her hand. “Broken together, at least.”

While Lucinda struggles to follow the path of goodness in her adult witchcraft, Ruby is suffering heartbreak. Can they find comfort in each other, even when Lucinda’s wicked family becomes insistent?

Unique to this story: Abuse of adult daughter

Good

Lucinda’s wristband, bearing an enchanted crystal that showed various navigational information, had misted over in the clouds. She brought it before her pursed lips and blew, sending tiny droplets scurrying off its face and onto her wet sleeve. The star she’d marked Dunwiddie with seemed to be immediately beneath her, and the distance tracker had fallen to zero. She’d arrived.

In a wide circle she descended gradually through more cloud and into the drizzle that fell on the village, circling again and again as she drew closer. Under normal circumstances she might have dived wildly, or even merely teleported to her doorstep and let the broom find its own way home; but the trunk hanging beneath was already creaking in its chains with only this mellow downward angle. Besides, Lucinda wanted to look at the town.

Closer, not much seemed to have changed. Closer still, she could pick out the differences: a new awning over the florist’s shop, new benches in the park, new paint on some of the houses, and a hundred other little details that had altered. Of course ‘new’ might be a misnomer for plenty of it, as she’d been gone for two years and some of this might be just as old.

It was a bittersweet sight nonetheless. She’d missed this place, missed her mother and her friends, missed the homey small-town life. But the minor additions and subtractions gave her the disconcerting feeling of viewing in a magic mirror the Dunwiddie of another dimension. Everything looked foreign somehow, even the things she loved. Everyone was a little older, which showed especially in the children, and the familiar voices calling out to each other or to advertise their wares had an alien ring to them.

She tightened her circle and finally touched her trunk down on the grass of the park. Hopping to the ground, she let her broom continue hovering as she sat down on the chest, holding the chains at either side of her as if sitting on a swing. Her mother would be disappointed if she knew Lucinda had spent any time in town instead of going directly to her, but what her mother didn’t know couldn’t hurt her. Lucinda wanted to get her mental bearings first, accustom herself to this new old Dunwiddie.

Additionally, she didn’t look forward to surprising her mother with her early return. She hadn’t even mustered up the courage to write and apprise her of the change in plans. She should have been gone for three more years, and her heart shied away from all the explanations she must now give. Confessing anything significant to her mother had never been something she could do without gathering up her willpower beforehand.

The full five-years’ absence would have made for an easier return in a number of ways. She wouldn’t have looked like a quitter, or a flighty, rebellious twenty-something. She wouldn’t be facing a very unpleasant conversation with her mother. And the alterations to the town, which now caused it to inhabit a sort of uncanny valley between familiarity and disconcerting evolution, would have seemed more appropriate and therefore easier to handle.

She sat quietly for a while, watching the sky gradually clear and the light rain peter out. The streets became more crowded, and several children came out to play. Some folk gave her surprised looks that were not necessarily negative, and some of them waved, but nobody stopped to chat. Lucinda followed a passing cart with her eyes; it belonged to a wool-merchant from out of town (unless she’d moved), and the grey patches on the once-black horse that pulled it had intensified and spread.

Losing track of the wagon with its cheerful tarp over the cream-colored wool, Lucinda caught sight of Ruby Hanshaw down the street. Her heart, though painfully heavy at this period, leaped so much that it seemed to propel her, without any assistance, to her feet. This surprised her somewhat; of course she’d been looking forward to seeing Ruby again, but how much like a pleasant electric shock it would be she had not anticipated.

Ruby was walking quickly toward her, eyes apparently fixed on Lucinda. Presently she broke into a run, and the witch could easily see her grin. The last distance was cleared at a sprint, and Ruby had thrown herself onto Lucinda the next instant and was hugging her fiercely. “I heard a witch had landed in the park, but I didn’t think it could possibly be you!”

Before Lucinda could raise her arms to put them around her friend’s back, Ruby had pulled away and begun examining Lucinda from the point of her hat down to the tipped toes of her flying boots. “You look good,” she said. “I love your dress!”

Lucinda spread out her skirts and gave them her own once-over. “Thanks! You’re mostly seeing my flying jacket, but this part–” she pointed– “is some of the dress underneath.”

“I love it all,” Ruby declared. “It looks so witchy! Were there a lot of dressmakers in Thaumopolis?”

“Not dressmakers, exactly. There are a lot of magical sewing shops. You choose your materials, and a pattern, and if you want some kind of design overlayed on the cloth–” she gestured to the subtle owls on her jacket– “and then you sew it all up yourself with magic.”

“Oh, I didn’t notice the owls! They’re so elegant.”

It was at about this moment Lucinda observed how weary Ruby seemed. That last statement, though enthusiastic, hadn’t been up to her usual standard of energy. Bags hung under her eyes, which seemed to be a little red. And was it Lucinda’s imagination, or had Ruby become thinner?

“You look tired,” the witch said in a tone of concern. “Has Mr. Lee been working you too hard lately?”

Ruby started, then went still, and her gaze fell to Lucinda’s skirt again. Finally, in a soft voice, she replied, “No, I left that job.” But before Lucinda could inquire further, she seemed to rally. She looked up again with a restrained smile. “But I have been working hard lately. I’m glad it’s Sunday, because otherwise I’d have missed you.” Her smile warmed. “And I’m really glad to see you!”

“Same,” said Lucinda, though she very much wanted to know more details about Ruby’s change in appearance, and what made her feel awkward or unhappy about having ceased working for Jade’s father.

“So… why are you back?” Ruby wondered, with the air of one changing the subject. “Is this a break, or…”

Lucinda sighed out both lungfuls of air. “Do you want to walk to my house with me? I can tell you on the way, and I’m sure my mom will make us tea, if you want to stay for that.”

“Of course,” Ruby replied. And there was that diminished enthusiasm again.

***

As she watched Lucinda give her broom a wand-tap so it would rise to a certain height and accompany them, bringing the witch’s trunk alongside, Ruby felt a measure of joy expanding her troubled heart. The trunk did seem to indicate Lucinda was back long-term, and it surprised Ruby how happy that made her. She didn’t feel much unalloyed pleasure these days, and if she needed anything in the world right now, it was an understanding friend.

When she’d rejoiced in Sunday, she hadn’t lied, but she also hadn’t mentioned how much she looked forward to an opportunity to think and talk about someone else’s problems for a while. It truly was a relief to remark, “You never said anything in your letters about coming home early.”

“I would have gotten here before the letters,” Lucinda replied. “It didn’t seem worth it.”

“So it was a snap decision?”

“No… I was thinking about it for a long time — almost the entire time in Thaumopolis, actually.” She shrugged. “I guess I just didn’t have the courage to tell anyone. But here I am, so now everyone will know soon enough.”

“You seem really unhappy about this.”

“I am.” Lucinda paused, and looked over at the house they were passing: the one she’d lived in before her mother had moved them to that bigger place out by the other large houses. Ruby had visited each so many times, it gave her a pleasant feeling of nostalgia every time she walked by the one within the town proper. Lucinda, however, stared at it with a sad expression that had just a little twist of bitterness in it.

“Oh, I can’t stand that face you’re making!” Ruby cried, taking Lucinda by the arm. “Please tell me what’s wrong?”

Lucinda looked over at her, and undoubtedly took in any signs of recent sorrow she might have missed before. Obviously she would rather ask about Ruby’s misery than talk about her own; Ruby knew how that felt. They would just have to take turns.

Finally Lucinda breathed in and out, pulled Ruby’s arm father into the angle of her own, and said, “My training is finished. Yes, early. There just wasn’t enough my great-great-grandmother could teach me. She’s a wicked witch, and I’m… trying not to be.”

“What do you mean, ‘trying?’ You’ve been a good witch since we were kids.”

“It’s easy to say that,” Lucinda replied sardonically, “but it’s not a lever you can pull and then you’re suddenly a good witch. I still know all those hexes my mom taught me, and sometimes I slip. Especially when she keeps pushing me to be wicked again. And I think training with my great-great-grandmother stirred it all up again.”

Ruby pursed her lips. It was true: Lucinda had hexed people occasionally since committing herself to the path of goodness. Ruby could only say essentially the same thing she had each time: “Everyone makes mistakes. I bet there are plenty of wicked witches who can’t help doing good things sometimes, too.”

Lucinda laughed, and it wasn’t entirely bitter. “That’s my mom, basically. But my great-great-grandmother doesn’t even seem to know any good spells. She taught me the groundwork of advanced magic, but after that, the individual spells were all… pretty dark. It turned the whole thing into a big ordeal all over again.”

“And there wasn’t a great-great-good-witchmother you could have trained with?”

This time Lucinda grinned in pure amusement. “Are you recommending Tizzy?”

Ruby grinned too. “I haven’t seen her since before you left. I think she’s adopted someone in Tengu.”

“Well, then, I don’t have a lot of options.” Lucinda’s smile turned sad. “My family is all made up of wicked witches. You know my mom… she’s not so bad… but the further back you go in my family tree, the more ‘bad’ turns into ‘evil.'”

Ruby dropped her gaze, considering that, in the face of this, her own issues seemed insignificant, even petty.

Lucinda attempted to put on a brisker tone. “But that’s my problem. It looks like you’ve got something going on too. What’s wrong?”

To Ruby’s frustration, tears prickled in her eyes at simply hearing her friend ask. She’d been struggling to be strong, not to give in to her unhappiness in public, but apparently all it took was a kind inquiry. She breathed deeply and calmly, steadying herself, but did not raise her eyes. “I can’t talk about it yet.” Hopefully Lucinda would realize this didn’t mean she wasn’t allowed, but rather that she lacked the ability.

“Oh. All right.” The witch appeared discontented when Ruby peeked at her after quickly rubbing her eyes dry, and as if she didn’t know where to take the conversation next.

Ruby lifted her face, wearing a sympathetic smile. “Being a good witch is even more important to you now, isn’t it?”

Lucinda nodded, and at first it seemed she wouldn’t answer aloud. But after a moment or two, perhaps realizing Ruby had asked in order to move away from what she couldn’t talk about, she said, “Yes, it is. All of my friends are good people (except maybe my mom), and I’d feel like I was letting them down if I allowed myself to go back to being wicked.”

“Welllll,” Ruby pointed out, “there’s always Indigo…” Though she hadn’t seen Lucinda’s former best friend in longer than she could remember.

With a mirthless laugh, Lucinda said, “Last I heard from her was five… maybe six years ago. I guess she’s enjoying herself too much in Eriksdale to think of Dunwiddie.” Her tone went sarcastic. “You know, luring little kids in with a house made of candy and then turning them into toads.”

“Gross!” was the entirety of Ruby’s reaction.

Lucinda went on. “But it’s not only for other people. If it were, I’d just be wicked and make my mom happy. And the rest of the family. But I want to be a good witch for me, because I believe it’s the best way to live, and what makes me happiest.”

Ruby squeezed Lucinda’s arm. “You’re a good person, Lulu. I’m sure you can stick to your principles.”

“Wow,” Lucinda said in an appropriate tone, “I have missed hearing you call me Lulu.”

“Have you?” Ruby laughed. “You always hated it before.”

“I guess my mind’s changed over the last two years!”

It sounded almost flirtatious, but Ruby tried not to think about that. Back before Lucinda had gone away, Ruby had believed a certain chemistry boiled between them like a witch’s potion… but as nothing had come of it, she’d eventually assumed nothing ever would come of it. And now was… a bad time. She didn’t release Lucinda’s arm, though.

Her friend said in a more serious tone, “And… thank you. I felt worse and worse about this my entire time in Thaumopolis. Sorry I never mentioned it.”

After Ruby’s assurance that Lucinda was not required to put anything she wasn’t comfortable about in her letters, they were content to cover the last distance to the back gate of Marla’s property in silence; then Lucinda halted again, withdrawing her arm from Ruby’s, and looked the house up and down as she had the one in town. A grim expression had settled onto her face, and she seemed reluctant to enter the yard.

“You can do this,” Ruby encouraged her. “She’s always been supportive, right?”

Lucinda made a skeptical face, then squared her shoulders and reached for the gate. She did not falter again at the door into the house, but opened it with a tap of her wand. She gestured Ruby inside ahead of her, ushered her broom and trunk in next, and in the mud-room beyond let the door close quietly behind them.

Not quietly enough, though, not to alert Marla, who appeared in the hallway before them in a puff of purple smoke with her wand held at a combative angle. But when she saw who it was, she threw the wand into the air, where it vanished, and herself onto her daughter much as Ruby had done earlier.

“Lucinda! I’m so glad to see you, my little mandrake! But why are you here? When did you arrive? Did you fly all this way? You didn’t breathe a word in your last letter; what a wonderful surprise!”

Lucinda stood perfectly still in Marla’s embrace, a tactic she had adopted in her late teens to discourage, or at least diminish, this behavior in her stifling mother. “I’m happy to see you too, mom.” Her smile was more of a grimace, though.

The older witch stood straight. “And hello, Ruby, darling.” Her beaming face darkened a trifle, and Ruby’s heart sank again. Obviously she knew. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Hello, Mrs. Farmazoana,” Ruby replied dutifully. She needn’t have worried about the woman saying something that would irritate her inflamed emotional state, for Marla went right back to doting on Lucinda.

“What a gorgeous dress! It looks so delightfully witchy! Turn around, turn around; I want to see all of it! The flying jacket matches so well, and I love the owls! What does the bodice look like?”

Lucinda obligingly removed the habit and displayed the upper part of her dress, shifting her wand into a pocket in the gown in such an automatic movement that Ruby thought she wasn’t even aware of it. Ruby herself divided her attention between admiring the bodice and sleeves and waiting for what she knew must come.

And, sure as clockwork, Marla clasped her hands together in joy and said, “You look so lovely, my little newt’s eye! Oh, let’s get some pictures of you while we have the chance!” She pulled her wand out of nowhere, pondered for a moment (probably trying to remember where she’d put the magic scrolls), and summoned up a basketful.

While her mother went through the supplies, Lucinda sighed quietly, then rolled her eyes toward Ruby with a pained smile. Knowing full well how her friend felt about this regular activity, Ruby returned the expression.

Marla never seemed to want to be in the pictures herself, but she insisted on several with Lucinda alone, then dragged Ruby into it for a few more. Lucinda, Ruby noticed, appeared more and more nervous and unhappy with each one. For the last scroll in the basket, Ruby took her hand and squeezed it.

Finally Marla announced she would make tea while Lucinda told her all about her training. “It’s so nice of Elinor to let you have a break to come see us!” she added, and Lucinda’s face looked more disheartened than ever.

They took familiar seats in the kitchen, which was decorated in a tasteful lizard motif with a few fluttering bats in the rafters, and watched as Marla made the tea implements fly around with her wand. “Well, go on, my love!” she prompted. “Tell us all about how things are going with your great-great-grandmother!”

Again Ruby grabbed Lucinda’s hand, under the table this time, and gave her a little encouraging smile. Lucinda flexed the fingers of her free hand, nodded at Ruby, and spoke firmly. “Mom, I’m finished training with Elinor. I’m back for good.”

Marla dropped the teapot. She caught it with magic almost without realizing it as she turned to face the table. “What do you mean? Oh, Lucinda! Don’t tell me my little witchlet is so talented that she packed five years of training into two?” She was beaming again, and Ruby wondered how anyone could be that oblivious.

“No, mom. I’m not doing the other three years. I left early.”

Brows drawing together, Marla repeated, “What do you mean?”

Finally Lucinda told the whole story, having clearly been working herself up to it with taciturnity and short answers.

Her mother stared at her, all tea preparations forgotten. “Oh, I…” It took some effort, Ruby thought, for Marla to pull herself together and emulate her usual ebullience. “I see! Of course you couldn’t stay, then!” She shook herself and turned back to the stove, but didn’t resume her magic just yet.

Lucinda said nothing.

Marla squared her shoulders and took stock of her surroundings. Finally she reached for the teapot again, and worked with her back to them. “Well!” she said in a businesslike tone. “Not every witch does her advanced training with a relative.” She seemed uncomfortable, but Ruby agreed that cheer and practicality might make Lucinda feel easier.

“You know how hard it is to get a witch to mentor you if you’re not related to her,” Lucinda said gloomily.

“You’ll do just fine staying at home and studying from books. Or there’s Lord Cedric up at the castle.”

“Mom, he’s a sorcerer. He can’t teach me witchcraft.”

“Well, we’ll think of something.” The tea seemed to be ready now, but Marla did not turn. Ruby speculated she wasn’t happy about Lucinda still insisting on being a good witch. She’d probably believed training with her great-great-grandmother would shift her ideals. And this impasse in Lucinda’s progress in advanced magic couldn’t be good news in any case. The atmosphere in the room was very awkward.

Levitating a tea tray with all the necessaries, Marla carried the teapot and trivet to the table by hand. She took her seat and set about pouring for the three of them. And this time she looked at Ruby. “How are you doing, my dear?” Her sympathetic expression seemed genuine, but Ruby thought she’d changed the subject in order to smooth out the discomfort of herself and her daughter.

Unfortunately, the new subject was not at all smooth. Tears came too easily these days — which Lucinda’s situation, if anything, exacerbated — and Ruby couldn’t answer immediately. The younger witch broke in and spoke for her. “She can’t talk about that right now.”

Marla nodded with a sad knowingness.

Which meant they couldn’t talk about anything.

Ruby found she’d put more sugar in her tea than she really liked, and resigned herself to sipping the syrupy mess in silence.

***

The remainder of Lucinda’s day, especially after Ruby left, had passed in awkward forced cheerfulness and in her mother insisting on unpacking for her. At least the latter activity had allowed them to think about something other than their dichotomy as witches, though Lucinda hadn’t been too pleased with Marla’s cooing over her garments, including underwear.

Today, she’d slipped out of the house before her mother awakened, and gone wandering about. The sensations she’d experienced yesterday regarding the town needed to be counteracted or assimilated, so she made this a long hike around and through Dunwiddie.

The farms, the orchards, the pastures, the cornfield… really, nothing had changed much. Certainly, a few details here and there had altered, as she’d seen yesterday — a newly painted fence, a larger flock of chickens, a different scarecrow — but that shouldn’t be enough to make the place seem so foreign. Lucinda supposed she’d merely become accustomed to the bustling streets, the shine and the glitter of Thaumopolis, and Dunwiddie felt quiet, slow, and rustic in comparison.

Having made a wide circle through the pastoral scenes surrounding the town, she entered its streets at last in the mid-morning. Further acclimatization seemed required for her to feel at home again, and she was ready for it. That this determination might also spring from a desire not to dwell on her essentially failed training she did not attempt to hide from herself. She would hold a tête-à-tête with every single villager, if necessary, to keep her mind off it.

In all seriousness, she did plan to stop by Ruby’s house and say hello to Mrs. Hanshaw. And who knew? Ruby herself might be there; Lucinda didn’t know her working hours. Or… where she worked these days. Or what she was so unhappy about. Maybe her mother could shed some light on that, if Ruby still wasn’t able to talk about it.

People greeted her as she passed, and she stopped to chat with many of them. Of course anyone that knew about her training would innocently ask what she was doing here, but she’d been prepared for that. She told them only that her great-great-grandmother had taught her all she could as a wicked witch, and said nothing of the struggle to maintain a boundary between wickedness and her own behavior and attitudes.

The townsfolk seemed to understand the partial truths she expounded, and acted as if the obvious next step was for her to continue her advanced training with some good witch. How Lucinda would have liked to believe that, and how disconsolate she was at finding the very people that were supposed to distract her instead reminding her at every turn of the forbidden subject. Evidently she hadn’t been as prepared for that as she’d thought.

She changed direction at an intersection and made straight for Ruby’s house. She needed the company of those with whom she could be more forthright. She could talk to Ruby about anything, and Mrs. Hanshaw was about the same. It seemed a crying shame that someone else’s mother should be easier to communicate with than her own, but Lucinda would take what she could get in this low period of her life.

Nearing the house (and assuming the Hanshaws hadn’t moved, though Ruby would probably have mentioned it if they had), she caught sight of two of her friends talking animatedly just outside the door.

Ruby wore boots and a pair of grease-stained overalls, and her dredlocks were tied up in back. A bag slung over her shoulder seemed to contain some bulky items that made bizarre shapes through the heavy canvas whenever she moved.

Jade looked as beautiful as ever in an aqua-colored dress with grey accents, though nowhere near as adorable as Ruby in her work clothes. And Lucinda realized as she came a bit closer that they weren’t talking; they were arguing.

“I was always just an accessory to you, just the chorus to your lead,” Ruby was saying. “You always expected me to be excited and interested in everything you accomplished, but you never returned the favor!”

“I didn’t expect it; you just did it because that’s what you do.” Jade’s condescending tone was something Lucinda definitely hadn’t missed. “You’re a follower type, and you give in too easily to everyone! Don’t blame me for that!”

Ruby was the follower type, but she did it well. It wasn’t a flaw. Lucinda felt her brows draw together and her mouth purse into an irritated frown.

“That doesn’t change the fact that you were never supportive of anything I did. You never got excited for me; it was always all about you.”

“Why should I get excited when you do something you know I won’t like?”

“See? It’s still all about you! I’m sick of dealing with your resentment and jealously and sarcasm! I don’t know how I managed to stay with you for so long!”

Jade was scowling. “I guess you think I’m resentful about you quitting your job with my dad. I guess you think I’m jealous of how much time you’ve been spending with Gwen. But you haven’t seen sarcasm yet.”

Lucinda listened with increasing comprehension — and anger.

“You always do this!” Lucinda thought she heard a choking in her friend’s throat. “Whenever someone points out something you do wrong, you double down on it! You try to browbeat everyone into thinking you were right all along!”

“You wouldn’t feel browbeaten if you weren’t so passive,” Jade sniffed.

You think I’m passive, but that doesn’t make it true! You’ve always been skeptical about my prospects and my talents, but you should have realized I couldn’t be a delivery driver forever! I was always going to move on to something better!”

“Oh, better. You’re better than us now. Just like those royals you’re so chummy with these days! Self-centered, grasping, extravagant, ostentatious, arrogant! That’s you now, and you’ve kicked the dust of Dunwiddie off your precious little feet!”

Now Ruby was clearly in tears, though she still faced away from Lucinda. “That’s Sofia you’re talking about!”

Lucinda knew many of the villagers had a certain disdainful attitude toward royals, considering them spoiled, delicate, or foppish. She’d had it herself as a child, though Sofia had taught her better. She wasn’t aware that Jade had imbibed it, and now her hands clenched in wrath.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot!” Jade’s face had darkened, her volume risen. “You forgive people indiscriminately even when they’ve done nothing to earn it. In fact, you’d rather do exactly what they did than admit you were wrong about them!”

Yes, I forgive people!” Ruby shouted. “You should try it sometime!”

Jade looked as if she too was fighting not to cry. “Well, see if you can forgive this!” she shouted right back. “You! are! pathetic! You’re a wishy-washy suck-up and a traitor to your own people! I hope you fall out of a flying carriage!”

Lucinda could stand it no longer, and acted without thinking. Taking two steps forward, she seized her wand from her pocket, pointed it at Jade, and sent a virulent hex right at her. Normally this would require an incantation, but the force of her wrath was more effective even than words.

Jade staggered back with a shriek as her thickening skin erupted in rough, pointed horns all along her arms and on her head. Locks of shining dark hair fell to the ground where they had been displaced, and the sleeves of her gown tore up to her shoulders. She clutched at her head and each opposite arm in turn with a whimpering, horrified noise.

Eyes widening, Lucinda drew in a long, ragged breath like a sob in reverse. She stared down at her hand, at her wand, as if they didn’t belong to her. Jade’s cry rang in her ears, and her heart felt as if it had just received a massive impact. Her eyes blurred with sudden tears, and, stumbling, she turned and ran.

***

Jade’s words hurt, but it was a blunt pain; they were, after all, only a verbalization of attitudes she’d displayed in other, subtler ways all along, strengthened by her anger and sadness right at that moment. Ruby knew perfectly well that Jade didn’t really hope she fell out of a flying carriage.

What hurt far worse was the hex. Ruby had several unpleasant emotions about that, and wasn’t sure, at first, which friend to go to. It didn’t look as if it had discomforted Jade beyond the initial moment, but it had obviously been a shock — as it would be to anyone!

It might have been even worse for Lucinda, though, given the struggle Ruby knew she was going through. And, since Jade had just finished saying cruel things about Ruby, whereas Lucinda had (whether appropriately or otherwise) been trying to defend her, that seemed to settle the question. After an uncomfortable, pitying look at her former girlfriend, she turned and followed Lucinda.

Her trail was easy to pick up, since she left a lot of tumbled, annoyed people in her wake. Making full use of the freedom of movement offered by work clothes, greater than Lucinda’s gown probably gave, Ruby broke into a sprint, hoping to overtake her before she could leave town and hide somewhere in the woods or the farmlands.

Actually, Ruby knew where she was probably headed. Beyond the cornfields stood a belt of dark trees full of ravens and toads and shreds of mist — a very witchy place — and Lucinda had a favorite spot there where she’d used to tuck herself away during hide-and-seek, or just when she wanted to be alone. Ruby didn’t want her to be alone now, so she made for it as quickly as she could, her toolbag bouncing and clinking against her side with every stride.

Lucinda no longer fit into the hollow at the base of the dead tree, but still she sat pressed up against it, her arms around her knees and her head buried. As Ruby drew nearer, breathless, she could hear the sobbing. Lucinda must have teleported here after pushing past people through only a couple of streets, since she looked as if she’d been seated for a few minutes already.

Ruby set her toolbag on the moss nearby and dropped down beside Lucinda, putting an arm across her shoulders. Lucinda leaned into her, still sobbing, and for several moments Ruby simply waited. Just as it had yesterday, putting energy into Lucinda’s concerns helped Ruby feel more levelheaded about her own. Not that she wouldn’t have been worried, wouldn’t have tried to comfort her friend even were she free of distress herself; but in the current circumstances it seemed doubly desirable.

Slowly Lucinda’s sounds of grief diminished, and eventually she tried to speak. It came out completely choked and unintelligible, though, so she breathed deeply and made a second attempt. This time Ruby could make out, “I’m so sorry, Ruby. So, so sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing to me?”

“I… I butted in. It wasn’t my business, but I…” She sobbed again.

Ruby couldn’t help admitting the truth in this. The way she chose to word it was, “I can fight my own battles. But I was mad too, so I understand why you were. It’s nice to know you were thinking of me.”

Her soothing tone seemed to be helping, for Lucinda had calmed somewhat. “I don’t… I don’t want to get angry ever again if it means I’m going to…”

“It’s hard not to get angry, especially when people say hurtful things!”

Wretchedly Lucinda cried, “I know! It was totally unexpected today; I never would have thought Jade could say things like that to you!” Lowering her tone, she added, “I know why you’re so sad now.”

Ruby nodded. “Maybe just after my breakup is actually a good time for you to practice not getting angry.”

“But what if it’s not only anger? What if every strong emotion makes me want to… to cast hexes?”

“Then maybe it’s stopping to think before you cast anything that you should practice. You wouldn’t want to repress all your strong emotions, would you?”

“To be a good witch,” Lucinda declared, “yes, I would.”

“But that would change who you are!” Ruby protested. “And I like who you are. Besides, don’t you feel strongly about being a good witch? You can’t suppress that.”

“Maybe I should, though. It doesn’t seem like I’ll ever really be a good witch, so maybe it’s better if I don’t want it so much.”

“This is getting tangled up,” Ruby said ruefully. “What do you really want?”

In frustration Lucinda mumbled, “To be a good witch.”

“Then I guess you just have to find a way to stop wanting to hex people.”

“But she made me so mad!” Lucinda’s reddened eyes suddenly blazed, and a face already unevenly plum-colored from crying turned a darker shade. “How could she say things like that to you? Even she acknowledged that you’re always supportive and interested in other people’s success! You’re here now, listening to my problems, when you have huge problems of your own!”

The tears welled again, and Ruby murmured, “Not so huge.”

Lucinda finally let go of her knees, and leaned her head to the side against Ruby’s. “It’s probably as huge to you as mine is to me.”

“Maybe,” said Ruby. “But your problem is huge to me too.”

“Same!” Lucinda sat up straighter in continued dudgeon, and slapped a half-clenched fist into a palm. “I always knew Jade was self-centered, but to go that far…”

Ruby had pulled her arm from around Lucinda’s shoulders when the witch moved, and now realized it had been a position of comfort as much to herself as to her friend. She took an unsteady breath. “Jade is… There are a lot of things I really love about Jade. She never — well, before today she never wanted me hurt. She would always try to cheer me up when I was feeling down.

“And we used to have so much fun together. She loves to dance — you know that — and she’d get all dressed up in a suit and show up at my door and bow and ask me to dance, and we’d dance along the street. It made everyone laugh. She’s actually pretty clumsy — you’ve probably noticed that — but we’ve danced so much that she’s gotten good at it.” She’d begun crying part of the way through this account, and now had to stop speaking.

Lucinda took a turn putting her arm around her friend. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, this time sympathetic instead of apologetic. “How long were you two together?”

“Less than a year. Ten months.” She might have considered it unbelievable that most of her time from 23 to 24 had passed this way, and had now ended, but the argument with Jade had reinforced the idea beyond any doubt.

“And you broke up with her?”

Ruby just nodded.

For almost a minute they sat and cried together, lamenting their own and each other’s heartbreak. Their situations were entirely different, required different responses, different comfort… but shoulder to shoulder and crying the same tears, they managed to wash away some of the day’s worst feelings.

Suddenly Lucinda jerked straight once again. “I’m keeping you from work, aren’t I?”

Wiping her face, Ruby looked around. “Yes, but… this was important. Gwen won’t mind.”

“Is that Royal Inventor Gwen?” The witch perked up somewhat, interested.

“Yes. I’ve been working for her for about a month now.”

“That explains a lot of what Jade said.” Then Lucinda grinned. “But, Ruby, that’s great! You’ve always been so good at technical design, and you know more about science than anyone in town. It’s a perfect job for you!”

Ruby blushed. “Thank you! I’ve really been enjoying helping Gwen remember redundancy.”

This definitely seemed to have distracted Lucinda. “Do you see much of Sofia at the castle?”

“A little. She’s so busy.”

Lucinda nodded forlornly. “She’s always known exactly what she wanted to do. She’s got her life together. Did she make Enchancia National? She never said.”

“She did! As if she needed more to do! She wasn’t the first woman on the team, but I think she inspired the first woman on the team.”

“Good for her.” Lucinda sighed, but now it seemed to contain more resolution and less hopelessness. After a moment she said, “Listen. I’m very sorry I hexed Jade. But I’m still angry at her. I don’t think I can apologize to her yet.”

Tentatively Ruby added, “And undo the hex?”

Again Lucinda nodded. “It won’t hurt her; she’ll just have to wear short sleeves for a while. And watch out for fragile items.”

Ruby had to laugh, though there was some disapproval in it. “Never Jade’s strong point.”

“You’ve forgiven her already, haven’t you?”

“Not entirely. But I need to forgive her to feel better about everything, I think.”

“Then it’s good that forgiving is your strong point. But I should let you get to work. And I have to talk to my mother sometime today.” Lucinda rose, and pulled Ruby after her. They ended up very close, which made Ruby blush again and entertain all manner of confusing feelings, some of them painful or at least uncomfortable.

On Lucinda’s pale face, as the blotchy patches slowly faded, a blush was far more visible; but she only smiled hesitantly and said, “Thank you for being here for me.”

“You too,” Ruby said, and turned to find her toolbag.

***

Lucinda saw Ruby on each of the four subsequent days, and Mrs. Hanshaw on two. It seemed Ruby went out of her way to make time, though on her workdays they didn’t have a chance to converse at length. The witch doubted she’d ever valued anyone’s friendship so much — nor, though they’d been friends for years, that she’d ever appreciated it properly. Her return seemed to have ushered in a period of greater closeness than any previous.

She didn’t see Jade once, and guessed her to be hiding her shame at home — or perhaps she had taken over as joint delivery driver with her father. Lucinda’s rage was simmering down, but hadn’t yet reached a lukewarm enough temperature to seek Jade out to apologize and unhex her. And the more time she spent with Ruby, the more the excellent qualities she’d always recognized in her became apparent and peculiarly appealing — which restored some of the heat to her anger at anyone that could dismiss them so hatefully.

With her mother things were rocky. Marla still had a hard time accepting both Lucinda’s abandonment of her advanced training and her insistence on being a good witch. She tried to understand and sympathize, but obviously couldn’t help thinking the situation would be much easier and more pleasant if Lucinda gave in. Her frequent remarks on the topic, which Lucinda had always considered something like a private joke between them, now took on the character of harassment.

The news of the hex on Jade had spread all over town, so Lucinda hadn’t been able to avoid discussing it with her mother. But she also hadn’t been able to express her full feelings on the subject — how she considered herself too much influenced by emotion, how she didn’t know what to do about it, how she wondered whether good and evil weren’t inherent or at least an irreparable result of upbringing. It seemed Marla too could not express her full feelings on the subject, but Lucinda had her suspicions — Jade deserved it, Lucinda had done well, surely this must convince Lucinda that hexing was a desirable practice, and so on.

When she’d been home for almost a week, her mother greeted her with news over breakfast. “Your great-great-great-grandmother Irene is paying us a visit next week. She’ll arrive on Tuesday.”

“That’s…” Lucinda didn’t know what to say. “All right.”

Marla sucked in a wincing breath. “Between you and me, she could have given me more warning. Your grandmothers all have exacting standards, so the place will need to be entirely cleaned, organized, and witched up. You’ll help me, won’t you, owlling?”

“Of course.” Lucinda thought she managed to seem not-totally-unenthusiastic. “Though she’s probably only coming because of me.”

Her mother lowered the list she’d just conjured, and gazed at Lucinda seriously and a little regretfully. “I’m afraid you’re right.”

“Listen, mom…” Lucinda sighed, and looked at the ceiling for a moment. “I know you disapprove of me being a good witch, but you’ve got to admit that pretty much everyone in our family older than you is… well, evil. It makes me really uncomfortable.”

“Oh, darling.” Marla tilted her head to one side with an expression more sympathetic than any she’d given since Lucinda returned to Dunwiddie. “It’s not so much that I disapprove as that I thought you’d grow out of it eventually.”

Lucinda looked at her skeptically.

“Oh, all right, I do disapprove. But that’s because it’s set you back in your training, and because it’s family tradition to be wicked, not because there’s really anything wrong with being a… good witch.” Marla’s eyes went distant, and she said more softly, “I might even have been a… one of those, myself, if my mother hadn’t insisted.”

“Grandma Dolores?”

Marla nodded, and completely set down the list as if she’d forgotten it. “You’re right about one thing: a lot of true evil has wormed its way into our family’s witchcraft. It’s always made me uncomfortable too! But I just couldn’t not be wicked when it would have meant letting my own mother down.”

Lucinda thought, if that was the case, Marla should empathize more with her daughter’s dilemma. She couldn’t say this aloud, though, any more than Marla claimed she could have been a good witch, for fear of hurting her mother.

“So I’ve always been just wicked,” Marla continued. “Enough to get through advanced training and satisfy the family. But I mostly keep to mild hexes — you know the stuff: everything we used to do together.”

“I know. And that’s… better than being an evil witch.”

“You could do the same,” suggested Marla hopefully. “Be just a little wicked…”

“And you could be good, if you wanted to. Don’t you think you’re old enough now to do what you want no matter what grandma thinks?”

Marla squirmed in her chair. “Oh, witchlet, I’m too old to switch now.”

“I think anyone can change, no matter how old they are.” I have to believe that, Lucinda added silently.

The older witch sat in pensive wordlessness for half a minute, then shook herself and took up her list again. “Well, the house needs to be in order before Irene arrives. I already have several things in mind that need to be done–” she waved her wand as she spoke, adding item after item– “cleaning and adding some extra witchy touches, mostly, but if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them! You always have such good ideas.”

Good ideas. Good. “All right,” Lucinda said.

Ruby showed up not long after this conversation, and immediately agreed to lend a hand in getting the Farmazoana home ready for the visit. Of course the witches used magic for much of what was needed, but Ruby had a good eye for visual design. She helped them decide how rooms should be arranged to the best effect, suggested additions, and assisted in the strength of will required for letting go of items that no longer served any purpose. She also took over entirely the few tasks requiring real elbow grease instead of spells.

There was not much opportunity for chat in this, and Marla, in and out of whatever room they were working in, kept praising and thanking them (Lucinda more than Ruby, naturally) to the detriment of any conversation. Over lunch, they discussed the project rather than anything personal, and then got back to it.

In fact it was evening by the time Marla declared herself satisfied with both house and yard, and Ruby was talking about going home for dinner with her mother. At this point Marla, who hadn’t given Ruby any pitying glances all day, looked somber and sympathetic. She said nothing about the breakup, though, and Lucinda silently thanked her for it.

“Walk Ruby home, why don’t you, witchlet?” Marla suggested instead.

“Shall I?” Lucinda wondered, turning to Ruby.

Ruby gave an enthusiastic affirmative.

Outside, in the mild air of the last light, Lucinda yawned and stretched. “What a workout! Even my wand feels tired.”

“It was great to have something useful to do all day, though!” Ruby stretched too. “They say work is the best way to recover from bad experiences, so that was a really nice distraction.” And indeed she seemed happier and more energetic than she had on any previous day since Lucinda’s return.

The witch was a little surprised to find she felt the same. The conversation with her mother had been uncomfortable and depressing, but the cleanup efforts had left her in a much more peaceful frame of mind. “You’re right!”

Ruby spread her skirt out a bit as she walked, and looked down at it. “I would have worn work clothes, though,” she said somewhat ruefully, “if I’d known what I’d be doing.”

Lucinda too examined her friend’s lower garment: orange with abstract brown spots and some simple embroidery in red around the hem. It looked very autumnal, making Lucinda think of her favorite holiday despite the spring coolness. “Oh, I didn’t realize!” she chided herself aloud. “I could have conjured you up some better clothing for the work!”

Ruby shrugged, releasing the cloth in her hands. “It’s not important.”

“Well, at least let me…” Lucinda pulled out her wand and aimed it at the purple stain Ruby had picked up somewhere, cleaning it away. Then she used another spell to dry the bottom half.

“Thanks!” Ruby spun, the skirt flowering out around her. “It feels much better now!”

Lucinda grinned. “I can change the color if you want, too. Make it match the season better?”

Returning the expression, Ruby said, “Why not!” Slyly she added, “But I thought your wand was tired.”

“Not too tired for this,” Lucinda declared. And, after a moment’s contemplation, she turned the skirt pastel green with sky-blue spots, and the embroidery bright pink.

“Oh, I love it!” Ruby cried. “Now I want to see all the other colors you can make it!”

So for the rest of the walk they experimented with Ruby’s skirt, sometimes coming up with absolutely ludicrous combinations and giggling uncontrollably. Lucinda didn’t feel like spoiling the evening with a description of what she and Marla had discussed earlier, nor by inquiring into Ruby’s recovery. She wanted to enjoy this time when they both felt more or less good about themselves and the world.

At Ruby’s door, she turned to Lucinda and asked, “Do you want to come in for dinner? I’m sure my mom won’t mind.”

“Thanks,” Lucinda said, “but I’d like to take a long walk. See you tomorrow?”

“You can bet on it!” Ruby smiled. “In fact, I have some shopping to do and errands to run! Do you want to join me?”

“Sure.”

“Then come over after breakfast!”

“All right.” Lucinda returned her smile.

Ruby squeezed the witch’s hand, then swept her blue, purple, and black skirt into the house.

***

The market bustled, the people chattered, the sellers haggled, and over all a light drizzle gave the scene a cool and misty air. Ruby hadn’t brought an umbrella — and, really, the level of precipitation didn’t quite justify one — and soon felt a little clammy. She didn’t mind much, though, with Lucinda at her side.

Since neither of them was a late riser, they’d breakfasted and met up early, as Ruby had hoped. The biggest selection and the best deals in the market square were to be found nearer the beginning of the day, and she had some specific purchases in mind.

As they moved from one stall to the next, Ruby asked Lucinda curiously, “What were markets like in Thaumopolis? I bet they were crazy.” She said this in part to hide the fact that, before the witch had arrived at her house, she’d been very low in spirits and had shed more than a few tears. The thought of all the errand-running she’d done with Jade haunted her — the talk and laughter they’d shared as they went, Jade’s ability to get a better price out of anyone, the romantic moments when Jade would surprise her with a flower or a trinket that had caught her eye and that she’d somehow bought without Ruby noticing…

In response to the question, Lucinda appeared simultaneously perturbed and annoyed. “Thaumopolis is really… bourgeois. They don’t have an outdoor market; they would think that was beneath them.”

“So everyone just has to go into shops?”

Lucinda nodded. “The shops all have magical display windows, and sometimes a barker outside doing magic as well.” She grinned. “It’s really tacky.”

“Help me pick out cloth for my mom’s new dress!” Ruby said. “It’s her birthday next month.”

“Oh, that’s right!”

“So the Thaumopolians think an open market would be beneath them, but they’re not above harassing people on the streets with horrible displays?”

“Yep.” Lucinda raised a length of material and suggested, “This would look good on her; don’t you think?”

“Maayyybeeee,” Ruby said uncertainly. “Let’s keep looking, though!”

Lucinda continually held swaths up against Ruby’s face, which made Ruby giggle. “It’s not for a face-mask!” she protested after the fifth or sixth time.

“Yeah, but you and your mom have the same beautiful complexion,” said Lucinda, “so if it looks good on you, it’ll look good on her.”

Ruby blushed, but noticed in the same instant a shadow passing across Lucinda’s face, perhaps at the thought of a mother and daughter being so similar. “What about that one?” she said quickly, pointing at random.

The witch lifted the aqua-colored bolt and held the entire thing up so it covered the lower half of Ruby’s face. “Hmm, it wouldn’t make a good face-mask,” she mused. “Your banditry will just have to wait.”

Laughing, Ruby pushed the cloth down and held her arm next to it. “I have to see it too, you know!”

They both stared thoughtfully. Finally Lucinda said, “It’s not quite right.”

“I think it needs to be more green,” Ruby agreed, “and maybe a little brighter?”

Lucinda nodded, then, shifting the bolt to one hand, surreptitiously drew out her wand. It wouldn’t be polite to let Mrs. Saverick know her customers couldn’t find exactly what they were looking for among her wares, so Lucinda changed the color to Ruby’s specifications very quietly and only in one patch.

With that section against her skin, Ruby caught her breath. “It’s perfect,” she whispered. How funny, that the cloth she’d indicated without thinking, for an entirely different purpose, should be precisely what she needed.

“It looks really good,” Lucinda agreed. She dropped her voice before adding, “It even looks good next to the original color.”

Ruby murmured, “If I get enough for the entire dress, will you change most of it, and I’ll use the rest for accents?”

The witch nodded conspiratorially, and tapped the segment she’d already altered to restore it to its selling state.

While they looked at ribbons for the bodice, Ruby asked, “What do they sell in the Thaumopolis shops?”

“Well, there are the normal things everyone needs — baked goods, fruit, vegetables, that kind of thing — but they do the baking by magic and keep the produce fresh with magic.”

Having selected a few more things from the clothier, Ruby made her purchases, and they moved on. “Do they grow the food by magic too?”

Lucinda tilted her head back and forth thoughtfully. “It’s semantics, but, no.” And when Ruby looked at her curiously, she explained. “You can’t cause something to grow with magic; you can only encourage it to grow. So magic can make plants grow healthier, or bigger, or faster–”

“Or all three?”

“Right. But the growth itself comes from nature.”

“Definitely sounds like semantics to me!” Ruby laughed. “Let’s stop there–” she pointed– “and pick up some herbs.”

“Yeah, I need some too.”

As she looked over the goods in their neat little ties and bundles, Ruby remarked, “I bet there were shops selling herbs! Witches always need that kind of thing, don’t they?”

Lucinda nodded, but said nothing. With a look of concentration on her face, she was sweeping her wand over the stall shelves from end to end, apparently seeking something specific. Eventually, with a triumphant grin, she reached for one batch of parsley done up with string.

Incredulously Ruby asked, “That’s all you need?”

“My mom likes it in her parmesan tomato bread.”

Turning back to her own search for cooking herbs, Ruby giggled. “I thought for sure you needed it for a witchy potion!”

“Have you seen me brew potions?” wondered Lucinda a little dryly.

Ruby sobered as she placed the last of what she needed on the counter, and did not immediately answer. But she thanked Mr. Akerson politely before turning away. Then, in a low tone, she admitted, “No, I haven’t. I think I spent the last thirteen years a little… uncomfortable… with some of you and your mom’s magic.”

“I did magic in front of you all the time!” said the surprised Lucinda.

“I know… I’m sorry… I guess I always thought of that magic as your ‘public’ magic, and everything you and your mom did at home as something more private.”

Lucinda appeared pensive, as if she was thinking back, and Ruby very much hoped she hadn’t hurt her feelings. “You’re right,” she said quietly. “I wonder why I never noticed that before.” Finally she focused on Ruby again and asked lightly, “So what changed?”

“I don’t know!” said Ruby in some relief. “I spent most of the day at your house yesterday, watching both of you do magic, and it didn’t bother me for a second…” Really, she’d only recognized the attitude she’d had before because it had changed. “I guess you being gone for two years sort of jarred me out of old habits!”

With a smile whose exact meaning Ruby could not read (which made its recipient blush), Lucinda stared for a moment. Then she said, “I do need some spell components, though. Do you mind stopping at the apothecary?”

“I don’t mind! I’ll pick up some of those drops for sore throats.”

The witch glanced at her sadly, then away. “Are you still crying a lot?”

It was a very straightforward question — not, Ruby thought, unjustified by recent events — and she answered as straightforwardly. “A fair amount. Are you?”

“Not so much.” Lucinda thumped her chest. “But it’s in here.”

Ruby nodded. “We’re both just broken for a while, I guess.”

Lucinda took her hand. “Broken together, at least.”

That made Ruby smile, and she didn’t disengage from the grip. “After the apothecary, I need the tool shop. My screwdriver’s about to go!”

“Most-used item?” Lucinda guessed.

“Yeah. And…” Ruby admitted with a sheepish grin, “I don’t always use it for what it’s intended for. It’s a good tool for prying things open, or pounding on something with the handle if the hammer’s out of reach. In my defense, I picked that up from Gwen!”

With a laugh Lucinda began to swing their linked hands forward and backward. “You’re a couple of rebels, aren’t you?”

Ruby laughed too, and the sound mingled with the bell on the apothecary’s door as they entered.

***

Irene did not look like a great-great-great-grandmother. A great-grandmother, perhaps, but not times three. She wore a long silver plait down her back, and, despite its color, its smoothness and healthy shine resembled the hair of a much younger woman. Her face bore only enough wrinkles to make her appear distinguished, and her cosmetics created an effect both beautiful and witchy. She smelled like a ferret, however, and Lucinda wondered if that could possibly be deliberate. She brought no ferret with her, so the matter was a mystery.

As Marla had hinted, she behaved like the quintessential stern old lady, speaking with perfect elocution at all times and examining her surroundings with cold, shrewd, and often disapproving eyes. And from the moment of her arrival (when, addressing Marla, she said, “And this must be your milksop daughter”), she was prodding Lucinda about having quit her training and claiming to be a good witch.

Sitting rigidly straight in her chair in the dining room (which Lucinda and her mother rarely used, preferring the cozier kitchen table), she laid a hand decked with dark-stoned rings on the tome she’d brought out of her luggage on this the second day of her visit. “Lucinda, come here.”

Uncomfortably Lucinda obeyed. Irene did not allow her to speak, but opened the leather-bound cover and pointed. “Now pay attention. This book traces the history and lineage of our family back through 24 generations of wicked witches. You would do well to read it.” She flipped through the first few leafs, and Lucinda glimpsed on the title page only The Annals of the Dark House of Farmazoana: Being the chronicles of…

Irene stopped on the third or fourth witch, and pointed again. “Tristrianna Farmazoana,” she read aloud. “Known for developing the moste terrifying and venomous Black Widow Hex.” The portrait showed a proud-looking elderly woman with a slight smirk on her pale face. In the latter Lucinda could find no resemblance to the members of her family she had seen; she supposed so far back those features hadn’t appeared yet.

The next witch was Phoebe Farmazoana, whose greatest accomplishment had been to hypnotize an Empress and rule six kingdoms in accordance with her own whims.

She was followed by Minette Farmazoana, who had turned a huge extent of farmland into a swamp, sickening the farmers and forcing all the villagers to move elsewhere.

The unrelenting list of ancestors and their evil deeds marched on. Irene seemed to have memorized the locations of her favorites, and sometimes began reciting their names and actions before the page had even settled — until abruptly she closed the book and glared at Lucinda.

“Stop squirming, girl! Correct your posture at once!”

So forceful was her great-great-great-grandmother’s personality that Lucinda immediately straightened her spine and stood still. She resented this, but it was already done. She did mutter, “I’m 25,” though.

“And I am 142.” Irene pushed the tome toward her. “Take it. Read it. I expect you to have at least ten of these witches and their great works memorized by the end of the week.”

Lucinda believed it expedient not to mention she had zero intention of doing this. She also accepted the book, thinking that if she kept it hidden somewhere, she wouldn’t have to suffer through any more of its contents in Irene’s sharp voice. She turned and hastened away.

“A respectful witch acknowledges what her elders say,” Irene snapped.

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Lucinda, struggling against sarcasm.

“That’s better.”

Lucinda took the stupid thing to her room and shoved it far beneath her mattress: a pedestrian hiding place, but perhaps Irene would be expecting magic if she suspected at all that her descendant wasn’t studying as she wished.

On the third day of her visit, Irene went around ‘updating the house to proper witchy standards.’ Cleanliness was desirable, she said, but it could go too far in places. She caused slime-dripping mold to grow on all the stone walls, the floorboards to creak and groan louder, the curtains — including the ones around Lucinda’s bed — to tatter, and a chilly wind to blow throughout the building. She changed all the lights to black candles that flickered and guttered and dripped wax everywhere. She installed an enslaved spirit in the attic to moan and rattle chains. She transformed all the bats into huge vampire bats, and they went screeching around the rooms and attacked everyone that came near.

Marla inquired deferentially, “Do we really need aggressive vampire bats? Don’t you think that might seem a little… excessive?”

“I do not,” Irene replied sternly. “Blood drunk by vampire bats is a useful and effective ingredient; and if they attack you, repelling them will be excellent practice.”

Marla, who never used blood in her potions, said only, “Yes, ma’am.” But the surreptitious look she gave Lucinda hinted that the bats would leave the house as soon as Irene did. In the meantime, they had to duck and dodge the creatures just to walk through their own home.

The fifth day had Irene insisting on showing Lucinda a mighty hex devised by a great-great-great-great-grandmother, who, the elder witch informed the younger with pride, had died in an explosion brought about by her experimentation with dragon hearts. Lucinda watched with as much patience and politeness as she could muster, but felt sure Irene must hear the grinding of her teeth. Then when Irene began, without asking, trying to teach the spell, Lucinda was forced to give the first flat refusal of the visit.

“Foolish girl!” said Irene, her lips tight and white between statements. “Learn the hex! Have you no sense of duty?”

“How is it my duty to cast evil spells?” Lucinda strove to speak calmly, knowing she might accomplish more that way, when what she longed to do was lash out and pour her disliking of this woman all over her.

“It is your duty because it is our tradition! To honor this family, you must perform hexes. You must teach your daughters the ways of wicked witchcraft, and pass the family name and history on to them.”

“‘Honor this family?'” Lucinda said incredulously. “I’m a good witch! Everything I do dishonors the family, and I like it that way! Evil shouldn’t be honored!”

“Let’s have no more of this nonsense about being a ‘good witch.’ You are a wicked witch by blood, and you cannot change that.”

Blood that you might use in a potion, reflected Lucinda. She fought the prickling in her eyes; she must not cry before her great-great-great-grandmother. Little as she valued Irene’s opinion, ‘you cannot change that’ came as a stab and an attempted confirmation that her efforts were in vain. She tried not to think about it, tried to change the subject. “Besides, I’m never going to have daughters.”

“‘Never going to have daughters!'” Irene was scandalized. “And what spurious reason do you have for saying that?”

Defiantly Lucinda declared, “I only like other women.”

To her surprise, Irene seemed to soften just a trifle at this. “Well, that’s perfectly normal for a witch. After all, my true love was not your great-great-great-grandfather, but a witch named Sarsinette who was excellent at hexing people with lycanthropy.” Her face tightened again as she added, “But you must raise at least one daughter. Adopt if you have to.”

Although the last suggestion (command, rather) was nothing Lucinda had any particular aversion to (if no specific plans for, either), she was disgusted at the idea of having daughters by any means for the purpose of teaching them wicked witchcraft and laying the entire dark legacy of the Farmazoana family on their shoulders. “If I ever have any daughters, I’ll teach them to be good witches,” she insisted. “Like me.”

“Unfeeling, selfish girl!” Irene cried. “You should be ashamed!”

“I am ashamed!” was Lucinda’s heated reply. “Ashamed of all the time I spent hexing people instead of helping them!”

Irene flung out an arm and pointed furiously at the door. “Go to your room! Think about what you owe this family, and about what you truly are!”

Lucinda stormed out without even a ‘Yes, ma’am.’ Rather than doing as her great-great-great-grandmother said, however, she left the house entirely. She found the tears threatening again, and this time allowed them to flow freely down her face. She didn’t know how many more days of this she could stand.

And, indeed, a week into Irene’s visit, a mere 24 hours before the old woman was likely to hold an examination on ancestral witches and their horrible deeds, Lucinda’s patience and emotional fortitude came to an end. Irene was lecturing her on the right of witches to subjugate the people around them, and, though Lucinda kept interjecting as confidently as she could, Irene pressed on without taking any of her opinions into account. Lucinda felt weary and beaten down, and knew she must eventually fall silent — which would given an impression of listening and regarding Irene’s bigoted views seriously… maybe even of agreement.

This time, after rising abruptly and abandoning the older witch mid-sentence, she really did go to her room. There, she packed a few things into a magic bag with a quick spell while dictating a brief note via another. All the latter said was, I’m going to stay with R. for a few days, but her mother would know what that meant, the reasons behind it, and its probable duration.

Then Lucinda hoisted her bag, opened her creaking window, summoned her broom, and flew away. She didn’t know where she would go if Helen had no space for her or couldn’t be inconvenienced with a guest right now, but she was determined to escape Irene for a while, and to do so would sleep beside her hollow tree on the mossy earth if she had to.

***

When Ruby returned from work, covered more thoroughly than usual in grease and desperate for a bath, she found Lucinda sitting at the table with Helen. From the look on her mother’s face (sympathetic, outraged, and pensive all at once), Ruby guessed Lucinda had been been talking about her current home situation.

Her friend greeted her as she left the entrance hall. Lucinda’s eyes were red but tearless, her demeanor relatively calm, and Ruby felt a surge of gratitude to her mother for this. She hated to see Lucinda sad, and wouldn’t have a lot of energy right now to deal with it if that were the prevailing mood. She’d seen Sofia up at the castle for the first time since before the breakup, and the princess had asked about Jade. Though Ruby had managed not to cry, her mood was cloudy.

“Hi, Lucinda.” She smiled, and felt a little better for doing so, and for the witch’s presence. “It’s nice to see you.”

Lucinda’s smile was equally wan. “It’s great to see you too.”

“Lucinda’s going to be staying here for a while,” Helen informed her daughter, bending to hug Lucinda around the shoulders. “I’ll let her tell you everything, though.”

Despite how little they’d been able to talk over the last week, Ruby knew how Lucinda had been suffering under the harassment of her unsympathetic great-great-great-grandmother. She guessed some final straw had driven Lucinda here, but she would get the details later. For the moment, her state of filth and need to clean up were acknowledged, and a clever joke exchanged regarding her dirty job.

She’d planned to soak for over an hour, but now she hastened through her bath with vigorous sponge-use, and without reading a novel as she had intended. Squeezing her locks dry enough that they wouldn’t drip down her back was something that couldn’t be rushed, but still she managed to get out of the bathroom in a quarter of the time she’d originally envisioned.

Reentering the living room clad in pajamas and a fuzzy bathrobe, she found Lucinda helping Helen set the table. She wondered if the witch had also helped make dinner. Her mother had been a tutor and leader of children for almost as long as Ruby had been alive, and was an excellent teacher and role model… but she was no great cook, except maybe over a campfire, and this trait she’d passed on to her daughter. It occurred to Ruby that she had no idea what Lucinda’s cooking might be like, but it wouldn’t take much magic to surpass the women in this house.

“I’m not trying to defend her,” Helen was saying. “I’m just trying to help you understand how she probably feels. There are some things a mother knows that are hard to empathize with if you don’t have children.” She handed Lucinda a bouquet of silverware.

Lucinda looked annoyed, which Ruby thought was better than despondent. “I don’t see any reason to empathize with her!” The knives and forks clinked decisively as she placed them on the table.

“But if you understand where she’s coming from,” said Helen patiently, “you’ll be able to deal with her better.”

Grumpily Lucinda replied, “I hope I don’t have to deal with her at all anymore. I hope she leaves while I’m here.”

“You can’t count on that.”

“I know.” Lucinda sighed as she placed a dishing spoon beside the casserole. Then she straightened her shoulders and added relentingly, “So you think she’s not being deliberately unkind.”

Helen nodded, setting a pitcher on the table. “She’s certainly deliberately doing things that are unkind, but I don’t think being unkind is her motive. It sounds like she values her family very highly, and she’s doing what she believes is best for it. No, it’s not appropriate, but she’s showing integrity in her own way.”

“By abusing me?” Lucinda took the napkins Helen handed her and plopped them down in a stack.

With a sigh and a disapproving expression, Helen said, “There are some parents who can’t recognize their children’s autonomy. For a woman as old as Irene, it must be even harder to consider someone 25 years old an adult with the right to choose how she’s going to live her own life.” She set down a knitted hot pad for the pan of roasted asparagus, then looked around. “I think that’s it! Let’s eat.”

Ruby took her place, interested to hear more of her mother’s thoughts on this topic. Helen was known for her pragmatism, and, though she could be harsh, her advice was usually helpful.

“Thanks for dinner,” Lucinda said.

“Of course.” Helen patted Lucinda’s shoulder. They all shared a moment of silence before beginning the meal, and then Helen went on as if the conversation hadn’t been interrupted. “Irene’s behavior is inexcusable, but if you understand that she isn’t trying to abuse you, that she’s doing what she believes is right based on what she values, you may be able to get through to her.”

How?

“Show her that you’re doing the same thing.” Helen pointed a fork at her. “You’re doing what you believe is right based on what you value, and that’s something she needs to recognize. Right now she’s probably seeing you as a perverse child with no real or respectable motivations for what you’re doing; you have to demonstrate that you’re a reasoning adult who feels as strongly as she does. She may disagree with you, but she has to see there’s something to disagree with.”

“I think I get it,” Lucinda said somewhat bitterly. “Thanks.” She mulled over her casserole for a while, and finally shook her head. Looking up, she forced a smile. “How was work, Ruby?”

After dinner and dishes, Lucinda came to Ruby’s room to help with her laundry (which actually meant cleaning and folding things by magic while they talked about fashions both local and Thaumopolitan). Helen was busy planning a Buttercup activity, so they (for a given value of ‘they’) did hers too.

Eventually they curled up against each other on Ruby’s bed, and sat silently for a while, cozy even if their emotional states lessened their general comfort.

“You’re still thinking about your great-great… great… great? grandmother, aren’t you?” Ruby asked at length.

“Only three greats, but it’s such a mouthful. Today I’ve been thinking of her as ‘Triple G.'” Suddenly Lucinda laughed. “She’d be so shocked if she knew! Mom calls ‘good’ the ‘g-word’ when it’s applied to witches, so it’s a really strange insult.”

“‘G’ could also stand for ‘gross’ or ‘gassy’ or ‘greedy’ or ‘gruesome…'” Ruby giggled as she counted out the words on her fingers. “It’s a great name! Just what she deserves!”

Lucinda grinned, but it faded as she let her head fall back against the headboard. “She said it’s impossible for me to be a good witch. She said being wicked is ‘in my blood.'”

Ruby caught her breath. “You’re not taking that seriously, are you?”

With a shrug, Lucinda admitted, “It’s hard to feel good when there’s so much negativity around me.” She glanced at Ruby with a wry smile. “Your mom read me the riot act about hexing Jade. Mostly about not apologizing or unhexing her yet, actually.”

“Weellllll…” Ruby couldn’t bring herself to chastise her already unhappy friend, but also couldn’t pretend Helen was wrong.

“You’re all against me!” Lucinda laughed, amused and hopeless.

Ruby commanded, “Don’t be silly! I mean, you can be silly, about anything but that. We’re on your side!”

Lucinda squeezed her hand. “I know. You’re the best. But I still keep thinking I’m destined for evil.”

“I don’t believe for an instant that you’re wicked at heart! What Triple G said about your blood is just stupid.”

“Then how can you explain that I want to hex people — that I did hex Jade?”

“I think it’s a habit!” Ruby declared. “Just a bad habit.” She’d thought about this a lot lately, first as an excuse not to think about Jade, then purely for its own sake. “And everyone knows you can break bad habits if you work at it!”

Lucinda thought about this, and her entire body seemed to relax a trifle. “That’s a really good way of looking at it,” she said with a hint of hope and cheer in her voice. But then she glanced at Ruby with a shift of expression, and said softly, “And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Don’t you have a sort of habit of considering Jade’s opinion important, and thinking you can’t be happy without her?”

It was a blow, but… “Yeah. You’re right. I need to change my attitude.”

“I understand it,” Lucinda hastened on. “It wasn’t just a girlfriend you lost; it was someone you’ve been best friends with for most of your life. That’s got to be incredibly hard for you.”

Ruby nodded. “But… you know…” She met Lucinda’s gaze, proud of herself for the lack of tears in her eyes. “You were gone for two years, and even though we wrote to each other that whole time, when you came back, my attitude towards you changed.” She blushed and quickly added, “You remember what I said about feeling like some of your magic was too private for me to be involved with? And how that just entirely disappeared when you came back? Plus, you stopped minding me calling you Lulu! We both gained a new perspective, and that proves we can both change our attitudes!”

Lucinda hugged her, and her wordlessness seemed expectant.

“There are just these little… so many moments I would have spent with her. So many things I can hear her saying about what’s going on around me.” She’d expressed some of this to her mother, but much of it made her feel too fragile to admit it aloud — except to Lucinda, apparently. “And every one of those feels like another wound. They’re small, but they add up!”

“Of course they do,” was Lucinda’s somewhat heated reply, but then she visibly hesitated to say more. Ruby thought she didn’t want to discourage further conversation by going on a rant about Jade.

“And you know how it feels when you do have an injury? How you try to move slowly and carefully so you don’t jostle it and make it hurt worse? Except it does, at unexpected times. And you don’t want anyone to touch you, because you’re afraid that’ll hurt, and you just want to be left alone.”

Lucinda drew back slightly. “Do you want… me to leave you alone?”

“No!” Ruby threw her arms around her friend. “No, please don’t! I just mean that it’s like that. Things are hard like that right now.”

The witch ran a hand up and down Ruby’s back in a soothing motion. “I’m sorry.”

Ruby sighed and withdrew, settling into the crook of Lucinda’s arm against the headboard. “Some of those wounds will heal on their own if I don’t poke at them. You’ve been great about distracting me from those. You, and mom, and Gwen… But the rest will take work, and I’m not sure what work! I don’t think anyone can ever take Jade’s place, so I don’t know what to put into my life to fill the hole she left.”

“I think you’re right,” said Lucinda sadly. “Nobody’s the same as Jade, so nobody can be what she was to you. But as far as work goes, maybe you can help those wounds heal by holding onto the things that make you happy whenever you think of something that makes you sad?”

Smiling as she contemplated this suggestion, smiling more broadly as practical plans based on it began to take shape in her mind, Ruby sat up straight and looked at her companion. “You make me happy,” she said, and pretended not to see Lucinda’s blush.

***

The next morning, Lucinda helped Helen with the cooking again for an early breakfast. Mrs. Hanshaw seemed to appreciate it, and Lucinda reveled in doing something good and useful with her magic. So the atmosphere in the kitchen was cheerful but quiet; at least, they tried not to make a lot of noise and disturb Ruby, who hadn’t yet emerged from her bedroom.

Lucinda had just finished murmuring a funny story about Indigo and Lily, and Helen was stifling her laughter, when the witch’s mood began to change. “They were always so sure what they wanted to be,” she added forlornly. “Lily was good, Indigo was wicked; they didn’t have to struggle with it.”

“You can’t be sure of that. And even if they didn’t have to deal with the same things you are, everyone has their own struggles, even if you can’t see them.”

With a faint smile, Lucinda said nothing. She’d planned on using magic to make the dishes fly to the table and settle in their places, but that playful urge had faded.

“And you know what? It’s hard for anyone to change into something their parents don’t want. Believe me. But if you think it’s right, there’s nothing for you to do but work for it.”

Lucinda nodded once, still distributing dishes onto the table. She feared she would soon be forced into a decision about her mother — especially if Irene’s stay lasted much longer — and she wasn’t excited about it. After a moment, though, part of Helen’s statement sank in, and Lucinda turned. “Believe you? Why?”

Mrs. Hanshaw looked a little sad. “This isn’t exactly a secret, but I don’t tell many people.” When Lucinda nodded again, she went on. “I never married Ruby’s father, and we went our separate ways. I only added ‘Mrs.’ to my name to keep people from treating Ruby differently. But my parents knew, and they thought it was scandalous, so they distanced themselves from Ruby and me.”

“I don’t remember ever seeing them.”

Helen shook her head, then moved the frying pan off the heat and reached for the tongs. As she set bacon atop a paper napkin covering another plate, she said, “They write occasionally. You remember that necklace Ruby got for her eighteenth birthday?”

“Yes!” Lucinda snapped her fingers. “That was from her grandma. Does she still have it?”

“Yes,” Helen said, bringing the bacon to the table, “but she doesn’t wear it anymore.”

“Oh, of course not,” Lucinda murmured. She remembered now: Jade’s parents had bought her a similar necklace, which matched her name as Ruby’s did hers; and the two girls had considered these appropriate stones a symbol of undying friendship. Lucinda wouldn’t be surprised if they’d exchanged them once they started dating. She wondered, if that were the case, whether they’d restored them to each other when they broke up.

“I think it’s really good to have you here,” Helen stated, returning to the stove to dish the eggs into a bowl. “She hasn’t been ready to talk to me, but you two were up half the night.”

“It wasn’t that late. And I don’t know how much I help… but I do try.”

Again Helen sighed. “You know, I thought she and Jade would get married and start a home together. I’d like to be a grandma, and do better for my grandchildren than my mother and father did. But I guess I was being too optimistic.”

“Jade is… unforgiving,” Lucinda ventured, “and self-centered.”

“Hmm.” Mrs. Hanshaw didn’t agree out loud, but didn’t disagree either. Finally she said, “I guess it was only natural. Childhood sweethearts usually don’t pan out well.”

Uncomfortably Lucinda reflected that she had known Ruby since they were children too.

Helen shook herself, and put on a smile. “Would you please let her know breakfast is ready?”

“I’m already here,” said Ruby from the doorway. The others turned toward her somewhat guiltily, and found half a grin on her face. “You can stop whispering.”

Lucinda opened her mouth, and Ruby cut in with, “And you don’t need to apologize! I know you’re both worried about me.”

Moving to hug her daughter, Helen remarked, “You’re all dressed already! I thought you didn’t have to be to work until nine.”

“I got up early,” Ruby shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I’ve been working on, but let’s eat!”

Once they were all seated and the initial bustle of dishing food and pouring drinks had passed, and after their moment of silence, Ruby took a deep breath and said, “So, mom, I was telling Lulu last night that I don’t regret breaking up with Jade, and it’s been long enough that the first sadness is pretty much gone.” She started cutting her bacon into small pieces.

Helen seemed to be holding her breath, and Lucinda guessed she’d been suffering all this time waiting for Ruby to discuss the breakup with her. She probably didn’t want to risk one of her usual pragmatic statements.

Finally, “I just miss her at odd moments,” Ruby went on. “That’s what hurts most these days. She was so much a part of my life that I can hardly do anything without being reminded of her.”

“That makes sense,” said Mrs. Hanshaw cautiously.

“And Lucinda suggested–” making a gesture of acknowledgment with her fork– “that I need to think about other things, things that make me happy, whenever that happens.”

“That’s an excellent idea!” This time Helen’s smile seemed unrestrained.

“That’s what I thought!” Ruby looked over at Lucinda with a grin, and, like her mother’s expression, this one was fully fledged. “You should give her an Innovation Badge.”

Lucinda groaned theatrically. When she’d eventually been persuaded to join the Buttercups at the age of fourteen, she hadn’t anticipated the next two years of torture at the hands of a leader that wouldn’t allow her to use magic.

Mrs. Hanshaw chuckled, and Ruby joined her. Lucinda had been sliding down in her seat, pretending to be invisible, but the sound of her friend’s happy laughter made her sit up straight again. It was excellent to hear Ruby so cheerful.

Helen looked at the clock. “I won’t be handing out any badges today if I don’t get going!” She stood, and began clearing up her dishes.

“Well, I made a list,” Ruby declared. “Of all the things that make me happiest! I’m going to memorize it, and whenever something happens that brings me down, I’ll recite it to myself.”

“Sounds like you’re the one who needs an Innovation Badge!” Helen appeared pleased as punch as she turned from the sink.

“Mom, I earned my Innovation Badge…” Ruby thought about it for a moment and finished, “fourteen years ago!”

“That’s great, Ruby. That’s an amazing idea!” Lucinda’s commendation was sincere, but her mind raced out beyond the bounds of the proposal. The list might be exactly what Ruby needed, and in that Lucinda rejoiced — but she couldn’t help applying it to herself as well. She’d just drawn breath to inquire into what particulars her friend had in mind when there was a knock at the door.

“Who can that be?” Not very enthusiastically, Mrs. Hanshaw hung up the towel she’d been using to dry her hands and moved from the kitchen into the living room. “I really don’t have time–” The sound of the door opening cut her off.

The only person Lucinda could think of that might enter this house without being invited inside was Jade. The witch felt all her muscles tensing. If Jade had come with an apology, all was well. If she intended to start more trouble, to hurt Ruby again, Lucinda would…

Control herself. That’s what Lucinda would do. Control herself and be good.

But it was Irene that stepped into the room.

That’s not very polite,” Helen remarked.

At the same moment, “What are you doing here?” Lucinda demanded.

“I’m wondering the same about you,” said Triple G. Her pale face, beautiful despite its sourness, held an expression both angry and disdainful as she looked around the room and most particularly at Helen and Ruby. “But if this is the kind of riffraff you associate with, it’s no surprise–”

Lucinda sprang to her feet. “Don’t you dare insult my friends.”

“Come with me,” Triple G commanded, completely ignoring Lucinda’s words, and started to turn away.

“I’m not going anywhere with you! And I’m not going back to my mother’s house while you’re in it!”

“Stop this foolishness at once,” said Irene. “The carriage is at the door.”

Mrs. Hanshaw put herself between Irene and the table. “Ma’am, you’ve done nothing but abuse Lucinda as long as you’ve been in town. I have to ask you to leave.” And despite the tension and discomfort of the scene, Lucinda felt tears spring suddenly into her eyes at this unmistakably protective gesture. If only it could have been her own mother…

“Nonsense.” Triple G drew her wand.

Lucinda reached for hers, but realized with a sinking heart that it remained in the pocket of her jacket in the guest room.

With a sneer, Irene pointed her wand not at any of them, but at the ceiling in the center of the room. “Rotted fruit of blasted trees, bring these women to their knees; pow’rs of evil cold and dead, plant a darkness in their heads.”

And everything went black.

***

At first nothing made any sense. Confusion, fear, pain… How long did it last? There was no way to tell. Perhaps forever. Perhaps this was the way it had always been.

Gradually, though, sounds began — sounds of confusion, fear, and pain. That seemed appropriate. Then something tactile relegated the hurt to specific areas: head, shoulder, arm, hand, fingers. Those were things that existed.

Certain ideas slipped in like phantoms — were there phantoms? — and took hold. People she loved. People she worried about. ‘She?’ Yes, she was she.

She had a mouth, a throat, lungs. But the noises that emerged as she tried to express her concern bore no resemblance to that concern… or to anything she thought she’d ever heard.

The floor, she realized eventually, lay beneath her. Fumbling, something she found she could do, she recognized the leg of a chair nearby, and clung to it for support. Her other hand, the one that ached less, reached out and felt a large object she couldn’t at first identify. After another forever, she finally realized it was a table. The table where the chair stood. This was progress.

Everything seemed to be slowly sharpening, like a pair of binoculars shifting into focus. The circles neared, overlapped, and finally converged.

Ruby was lying on the living room floor in total darkness. It seemed she’d fallen from her chair and bruised her shoulder, then jammed her fingers against something as she flailed around helplessly.

Then the words of the hex returned in a flash, and she struggled to her feet, holding the chair back for support. Her mother! and Lucinda! Again she attempted calling out to them, and the words were less distorted this time. And there came an answer — which of them was it?

“Rrruuuubyyy,” said the slurring speaker again.

“Mmomm?” Ruby felt her way around the table, putting her hand down into various dishes so it was covered with egg by the time she reached the source of the sound and joined her mother on the floor.

“Rruubyy, arre yoouu…” Helen seemed, typically for her, more annoyed at the inconvenience of being unable to talk properly than panicked by the situation.

“Ii’mm fiiinnne.” Ruby swung her head around, but still could see no glimmer of light. “Lluuciinndaaa?”

No answer.

Ruby repeated the name as best she could two or three times, then stopped trying, waiting for her voice to resume its usual clarity before tackling anything more complicated. She felt tears behind her eyes, and her heart was racing.

After maybe two full minutes, Helen said, “Whaat haappened?”

Ruby replied, “A daarkness inn our heads,” finding it now much easier. “Triple Geee.”

“What?”

“Triple G. Lucinda’s… Ireene.” She didn’t think she could handle ‘great-great-great-grandmother’ at the moment, improving though she was.

“Where’s Lucinda?” her mother managed quite comprehensibly.

“I don’t know,” Ruby whispered.

Sight was the last to return, relieving Ruby more than she could say. At first it manifested merely as a faint glow, but it spread to cover her entire field of vision, and colors began to appear in blurry patches. Then it was like the binoculars all over again, but with a more literal visual focus than before.

The room, she found, remained as light as it had been, the back windows open and the lamp still burning at the other end. Aside from the spilled contents of the table, and Lucinda’s absence, everything was as they had left it.

“She took Lucinda!” she said, jumping up. Suddenly she was hot with anger and fear for her friend, and it burned away the last of Irene’s hex. “She took Lucinda!”

Beside her, Helen too began to rise, but fell back again with a hiss of pain. “My ankle’s twisted,” she said through gritted teeth.

“Mom, I have to go after her!” Ruby dropped to one knee, looking over her mother in despair.

“Of course you do. Just call for help outside; I’m sure someone will come in.”

Ruby bent and kissed her mother on the cheek, then ran, stumbling only once, out of the room and the house. “Help!” she shouted. “Someone please help!”

“What is it?” came the immediate answer from Arlyn Cooper, who stood on her parents’ porch with a broom.

“My mom’s got a sprained ankle,” said Ruby in haste, “but I can’t stay! Did you see a carriage out here?”

“A scary creaky carriage with bone horses?”

“I’ve never actually seen–” Not helpful. “I mean, yes! that sounds right.”

“Um, this morning,” Arlyn said with a guilty glance at the broom she must not have been using very industriously. “Then a bunch of people came knocking at your door wondering where you and your mom were; I assumed you weren’t home.”

Ruby looked into the sky and observed, with a sinking heart, the sun at its zenith. “Did you see which way the carriage went?”

“That way–” Arlyn pointed– “and not very fast, but I don’t see how that’ll help you.”

“Thank you,” Ruby breathed. “Send someone in to help my mom; she’ll explain everything!” And she pelted off down the street.

It didn’t take long for her to realize Arlyn was right: if hours had passed while Helen and Ruby wallowed in darkness, there would be no picking up Irene’s trail. At least, not without help. She changed direction and ran toward the Farmazoana house instead.

Lucinda hadn’t been as close a friend prior to the witch’s journey to Thaumopolis, but since she’d returned, she’d proven herself invaluable. And Ruby knew perfectly well how Lucinda felt about her. She didn’t have time to think about that now, but it did join the multitude of other reasons she couldn’t let Triple G have her way.

A faint hope she’d had that the carriage might simply have taken Lucinda back to her mother’s house died as she approached, for there was no sign of the equipage or the skeletal horses. Nevertheless, Ruby vaulted the fence, glad of her work clothes, and ran to the door.

“Ruby?!” Marla, wand raised, looked over in surprise when her daughter’s friend came bursting into the house without a knock — ironically, Ruby thought briefly, considering Triple G’s behavior earlier. “The last of the bats–”

Ruby cut across her, no formalities or apologies. “Is Lucinda here? Did Irene bring her back here?” And without giving Mrs. Farmazoana a chance to answer, she shouted, “Lucinda! Lucinda?!” — hoping to hear the tramp of pointy-toed boots on the stairs or from the kitchen.

“I thought Lucinda was at your house!” Marla said, startled again.

“Irene took her, and I thought she might have brought her back here.”

“Irene! But she left early this morning!”

Ruby turned to face the witch again, feeling the flush of rage throughout her body. “You didn’t even know it happened! Your own daughter gets kidnapped, and you don’t even know!” She was so angry, she actually stamped her foot.

“I was… giving her space.” Marla glanced away somewhat shiftily, as if aware she hadn’t behaved well.

“You let that evil woman stay in your house while Lucinda was suffering!” Ruby shouted. “You prioritized the evil history of your family over your daughter! And now Irene’s taken her who-knows-where, and my mom got hurt, and you’re in here worrying about bats!”

Marla lowered her wand, her hand clenched tightly around it. She looked upset, as well she should. Ruby didn’t care if she’d hurt her feelings; she’d needed to get that off her chest, and she needed Marla’s help now. “We’ve got to go after them,” she said in a more level tone. “They’ve been gone for hours, so you’re the only one who can track them.”

Downcast, Mrs. Farmazoana said, “Or else you wouldn’t have come to me. You’re right: this is all my fault.” Then she turned sharply toward the stairs and waved her wand. She’d barely put it away somewhere inside her purple and black dress when a broomstick came hurtling down and stopped immediately in front of her. “I’ll get her back,” she said determinedly. “Irene’s carriage is slow; she may be powerful, but the magic falls off later in life.”

“Wait!” Ruby cried as Marla mounted her broom and seemed prepared to speed out the still-open door at that very moment. “Let me on!”

The witch looked as if she might argue, but then shifted forward to make room for Ruby behind her. “Hold tight,” she said grimly, taking her own advice by gripping the dragon-shaped headpiece. Then, evidently to the broom itself, she commanded, “Take us to Lucinda!”

***

At first nothing made any sense. Confusion, anger, pressure, with chaos ruling over all — how long did it last? Or was this the way it had always been?

But the pressure eased, and the confusion dissipated. Her vision came into focus, as did her awareness of rattling hoofbeats and the creaking of wood and metal. She stared out at a world in shades of purple and deep, deep black, and found it comforting.

Of course. She sat in her great-great-great-grandmother’s open carriage as they left behind the dull and unsalubrious Dunwiddie. What she’d been doing before she couldn’t quite recall, but it didn’t matter: Irene had rescued her from it, and they were heading back to where they belonged.

“In Thaumopolis,” Irene was saying, “you will resume your training with Elinor.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lucinda said gratefully.

“But this time, I will be taking a personal hand in your education. You will begin immediately learning the wickedest spells, and with my guidance and the tutelage of your great-great-grandmother, you will become a powerful wicked witch.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” There seemed to be something else she would like to say, something that needed to be said, but it was just beyond her reach. She felt a headache slowly growing.

“You will earn your place in the annals of our family, and be remembered as one of the great Farmazoanas.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Lucinda folded her hands in her lap to keep from holding her head in an unladylike manner. Something was in there trying to get out, and it made her uneasy.

“You must familiarize yourself with the witches in the book and their major accomplishments,” Irene said. And why did Lucinda get the feeling she was prodding, looking for a certain response?

“With pleasure, ma’am.” This seemed to satisfy Irene, at any rate. “Would you,” Lucinda ventured, “read it to me?”

A triumphant smile appeared on Irene’s handsome face, and Lucinda rejoiced to have lived up to her expectations. “Of course. Sit closer.”

On they rode, and Irene moved through the book page by page. Lucinda’s reaction to each was visceral, but otherwise difficult to define. She put it down to excitement over fulfilling her great-great-great-grandmother’s wishes.

They’d left the farmlands behind and plunged into a deep wood, where the hues and shades of purple became more varied and attractive. Lucinda couldn’t help tearing her eyes from the book in Irene’s lap and gazing around in wonder and delight. And thus she caught sight of movement directly behind them. Turning, almost kneeling on the seat to get a better view, she peered back and recognized, with a shock, her mother on a broomstick with Ruby Hanshaw.

She poked Irene, who immediately said, “Don’t poke me, girl,” but did turn and look. “Marla,” she added contemptuously. “She’s failed us both. Prevent her from following us any farther.” And when Lucinda hesitated, “You don’t have to hurt her,” said Irene impatiently.

With this in mind, Lucinda drew out her wand and pointed it at the approaching broomstick. She could cast this hex in her sleep, since in childhood she’d become quite skilled at pranking other witches with it, before… before what? Some memory tugged at her, gripping her hand as if urging her not to aim a hex at her own mother. But that was silly. If Marla didn’t want to be hexed, she shouldn’t be chasing after them. And what was Ruby doing here at all?

The broomstick bucked under the hands of its riders, lifted, and turned, ready to fly straight back to Dunwiddie and obscurity by the quickest path. But Marla and Ruby tumbled onto the road, raising a cloud of purple dust as they hit the dirt. The broom sped off, and its former passengers couldn’t do much on foot, so Lucinda lowered her wand and simply watched.

Marla took a solid, determined stance and cried out an incantation Lucinda couldn’t quite hear, and the carriage ground to a halt. In response, with a noise of frustration, Irene quickly chanted, “Shield, protect us in our sin: let magic out but never in.” These words and a wave of her purple-glowing wand raised a dome around them with that same shine to it, encompassing the entire carriage and its horses. This should give Irene time to break the hex that had halted their progress, and Lucinda to put a more decisive stop to their pursuers.

Marla and Ruby came closer, into the range of Lucinda’s hearing. “–trying to cut my spell off!” Marla held her wand in both hands now, and struggled with it like a fishing rod with a huge catch on the other end of the line.

“Got it!” Ruby said, and darted forward. For all her decisiveness in acting, she looked very hesitant to enter the shield; but Irene had built it to withstand active spells, not people, nor even passive magic like the obvious color-change effect on the ribbons in Ruby’s hair. All at once she pushed through, shuddering, and halted with Lucinda’s wand in her face.

She went very still, and raised her eyes to meet Lucinda’s where the witch looked down at her from her position in the carriage. She said her friend’s name.

Lucinda had a perfect hex for her, something that would teach her to think twice in future before tangling with the Farmazoana family. This one would require an incantation, and for some reason what had been on the tip of her tongue now receded to some corner of her mind she couldn’t get at. Still staring Ruby down, she struggled with her memory.

“Lucinda, I know you’re not going to hex me,” said Ruby calmly. “Irene may have convinced you to go back with her, but she doesn’t know you as well as I do.”

“Irene is my… mentor.” Why did some other word seem eager to replace that last one? “Irene will make me… wicked.”

“But you’re not wicked. No one can make you wicked except you. And you made your own decision years ago: to be good. You are a good witch, and my good friend. I know you won’t hex me.”

“Spirits of…!” The incantation stuck in Lucinda’s throat, and the wand shook in her hand. What was wrong with her? Why did it feel like Ruby’s yellow-green eyes were pools into which she might fall, and from which she would emerge a changed woman?

“Come on, Lulu,” Ruby urged, “snap out of it! You’re better than this. You’re so strong, and you fight so hard to be good.” Despite her evident best efforts, tears began running down her face. “You were there for me when I needed you; I’ve needed you so much, and I still need you. I won’t let Triple G take you away from me!”

“I was never good,” Lucinda whispered, her voice trembling. “I could never be good.”

“That’s the spell talking! You have fears and doubts, and sometimes you trip up, but you’ve always been good!” Ruby closed her eyes and raised her chin, spreading her arms out, making a target of herself. “I believe in you, I trust you, and I love you.”

For a hex, for even a full-fledged curse, there could be no better moment. Yet Lucinda still hesitated. Ruby’s words had come upon her like a blow, but had rebounded off a foreign object or energy that stood between their speaker and Lucinda’s heart. She drew back, lowering her wand, and pressed a hand to her chest. It shouldn’t mean as much to her as it did… but if it meant something to her, it should mean more to her than it did. What lay just beneath her surface that muffled her emotions and blocked any attempt to access them? And what part of her stirred behind it?

Suddenly her great-great-great-grandmother was gripping her arm fiercely in her jeweled left hand, pushing half past her. “You think you can overcome my magic?” And her right hand, the tip of her wand still glowing purple, descended toward Ruby.

Lucinda couldn’t stand it, couldn’t allow it. Her heart pounded so loudly in her ears that it was almost an external sound, a wild beat driving her to action. But the stifling of her will still restrained her, and she moved only jerkily and sluggishly to throw off Irene’s aim by seizing her arm. She’d acted, but too late.

***

Ruby’s eyes had sprung open in surprise at Irene’s voice, and she’d recognized her danger. It seemed absurd to give attention, at such a moment, to any other stimulus, but in that split second she realized the noise she’d been hearing wasn’t the blood throbbing through her. It was a horse’s hooves.

The animal — a living, breathing dark bay Ruby recognized in an instant — did not expect its rider to fling herself off its back when it passed the carriage, and whinnied in protest. But the rider paid no heed, focused entirely on Irene, into whose head she slammed a spiked forearm as hard as stone.

Irene slumped backward out of sight. Her magical shield disappeared entirely, and Ruby could hear Marla behind her panting and staggering as the resistance gave. Lucinda’s eyes rolled up, and she too teetered, then sank down into Jade’s waiting embrace.

“Lucinda!” Ruby scrambled around the carriage to the closer step, where she flung the low door open. She was forced to move Triple G’s crumpled body as she entered, but found it surprisingly light and easy to maneuver into the seat and out of the way. “Jade!”

“R-Ruby…” Tears stood on Jade’s face. “I didn’t mean to– I didn’t do anything to her; I was trying to save you all, but she just…”

“She was under a spell, and it must have broken when you knocked Irene out; it’s not your fault!”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m all right, thanks to you!”

If anything, Jade began to cry even harder. “That old w-woman… I didn’t mean to kill her or anything, but she was g-going to…”

“I know.” Ruby put a hand on Jade’s arm, but didn’t know if Jade could even feel it through her tough skin. “It’s all right. You saved us. You saved all of us.”

“Girls!” Marla also climbed up into the carriage, whose floor too many people now occupied. “Lucinda!” Still trying to catch her breath after her expenditure of magic, she said nothing more for a few seconds, but reached out to take her daughter’s limp hand.

“Will she be all right?” Jade whispered, eyes still full of tears.

“I… I think so.” Mrs. Farmazoana touched Lucinda’s face. Then she raised her own and smiled wearily. “And… she should remember who she really is when she wakes up.” She put an arm around Ruby and squeezed. “You did so well, Ruby, darling. It’s not everyone who can work through a curse like that, but you kept her from hurting you until Jade–” she didn’t hug Jade, but looked as if she would have liked to if not for the potential discomfort of the spiny skin– “came dashing to the rescue. Thank you both.”

Jade gave a shaky laugh.

“Were you following us that whole time?” Ruby asked.

“Pretty much. I was out driving deliveries when I saw you two fly off down the forest road like lightning, and I knew something must be wrong. So I unhitched Sammie and rode after you.”

“Sammie’s not a saddle-horse, though!” said Ruby in wonder.

Wincing, Jade replied, “Aaaaand I didn’t put a saddle on her. I’m lucky she even carried me!”

“You were pretty dashing, though.” Ruby smiled tentatively at her former girlfriend.

Jade blushed, and looked back down at Lucinda. “I’m also lucky I had Sammie on the wagon and not Bart. The donkey,” she added for Marla’s sake.

“You wouldn’t have been nearly so dashing that way,” Marla agreed with a chuckle.

“I would never have caught up! I almost didn’t make it in time as it was!”

Before any of them could say another word, Lucinda stirred, and everyone’s attention was transfixed. “Lucinda?” Marla prompted. “Lucinda, baby, wake up. Wake up, darling.”

The younger witch drew in a deep breath and let it out, and her eyes slowly opened. She didn’t seem to have any focus yet, but tension grew in her limbs and she shifted uncomfortably. Finally, her gaze evidently cleared, and she struggled to sit up. “Mom? Jade!? Where’s–”

“I’m right here.” Ruby took Lucinda’s other hand in both of her own, which reminded her painfully of the jarred fingers she’d forgotten since running from her house earlier.

Marla sighed in relief. “Lucinda, my beautiful oleander, are you all right?” Lucinda’s hat had flown off at some point, and now her mother pushed from her face some blue-black locks that had consequently gotten free.

“My head aches, but I think so… What am I…” Lucinda tried to reach behind and beneath herself, evidently wishing to ascertain what she was half lying on or against.

“Oh!” said Jade. “Sorry.” And she pushed Lucinda into a sitting position and slid to the side to remove her tough skin and horns from the immediate vicinity.

Lucinda struggled more upright, staring at Jade’s arms with a dismayed expression.

“I don’t know if you saw,” said Ruby, “but Jade saved us. She knocked Irene out!”

“Or killed her,” Jade muttered.

Marla shifted, turning awkwardly in place, and examined her great-great-grandmother. Ruby hadn’t looked at Triple G since she’d lifted her onto the opposite seat, and even then hadn’t paid much attention. But now she saw the speckled bruise growing across the pale skin on the woman’s temple, and shuddered.

“She’s alive,” Marla informed them after feeling Irene’s pulse. “She may suffer long-term damage, but that’s what happens when you kidnap and brainwash my daughter!”

“What do we do with her?” Lucinda wondered, her gaze falling in resentment and disgust upon Triple G.

Ruby asked, “Do you remember what she did to you?”

Lucinda turned and looked her in the eyes. Something intense burned behind hers, and, staring at it, Ruby gradually blushed to the same temperature. Lucinda said quietly, “I remember everything.”

They might not have broken the connection for goodness only knew how long, but Marla, who had turned back, distracted them by answering Lucinda’s question. “The king will have to decide what to do with her.”

Lucinda said, “Is that all right, though? She’s not a citizen of Enchancia.”

“But her crimes were committed on Enchancian soil,” Mrs. Farmazoana declared, “so she’s subject to the king of Enchancia’s judgment.” She continued gravely, focusing on each of the young women in turn. “You’ll probably all be needed as witnesses.”

Jade blanched.

Marla reached out a hand in comfort, but withdrew it when she remembered the horns. “Don’t worry, Jade. You were a hero today, and the king will see that when we all describe what happened.” Everyone’s attitude toward Jade had transformed; even Ruby couldn’t remember, just now, what Jade had shouted at her during their embarrassingly public argument.

Mrs. Farmazoana stood, making the carriage creak, and faced the opposite seat again. “Let’s see… yes! She’s kept hold of her wand even unconscious, like a true witch!”

Mo~om,” Lucinda complained.

With a flighty, nervous chuckle, Marla pried the wand from Triple G’s hand. She tucked it away somewhere, and withdrew her own in the contiguous movement. With a decisive stroke, she wrapped Irene in ropes that glowed green. Ruby noticed she didn’t say any magic words, and feared it must be a hex she’d often used.

A quick glance at Lucinda showed her lips tighter than they had been. It seemed her attitude toward her mother had not transformed; things were obviously coming to a head on that subject. To Ruby Marla had admitted her fault, but not yet to Lucinda.

“I’ll teleport her to the castle.”

Lucinda said dubiously, “That’s a long way. Can you handle that after all the magic you just used fighting her?”

“Don’t underestimate your mother!” When Lucinda still looked at her skeptically, Marla broke down and admitted, “I’ll make two or three stops.”

“And what about us?” Lucinda looked around, half-rising but falling a little woozily back.

From her standing position, Marla could easily see out past the box seat to the road beyond. “Irene’s spell on the horse bones died when she went unconscious, but I know a hex that–”

“Sammie can pull the carriage!” Jade sounded as if she wanted to be helpful, as if she hadn’t yet done enough. “It’ll be slow — she’s tired — but I don’t think the carriage weighs more than our wagon with a full load.” She too stood, and the equipage gave another squealing creak. “If it doesn’t fall apart,” she added, frowning.

“The noises are just a spell,” Lucinda informed them. “You know, a ‘proper witchy carriage.'” She did actual air-quotes and rolled her eyes.

Skipping the step, Jade jumped out and headed up the road toward where Sammie had been snuffling around in the leaves and chewing on things she probably wasn’t supposed to this whole time. The horse shied a bit, and Ruby guessed she didn’t like the state of Jade’s arms. Jade herself seemed to have grown accustomed to them, though — and to calming the horse while they remained in this state.

As she led Sammie back to the carriage, however, her face fell. “The traces are for two!”

“What’s that?” both witches asked, almost simultaneously.

Jade looked as if she might make a sarcastic comment about women that had lived in a country town for thirteen years and didn’t know what traces were — which would have lost her some good will with all of them — but she restrained herself. Ruby was proud. “These parts,” Jade said, pointing.

“Oh, I can fix that,” Lucinda assured her. “Give me just a minute to come up with the spell.”

“And if you can handle that, I’d better get going,” said Marla, “before Irene wakes up.” She took Lucinda’s face in both of her hands and squished it a little. “I’m so glad you’re all right, witchlet.”

Lucinda sat very still and allowed this. When her mother released her, she merely nodded.

“Good luck!” Jade said from the ground.

“Be safe!” said Ruby.

Marla whirled her wand around her head, and she and Irene disappeared with a twinkle that lingered in the air much like the awkward silence that fell thereafter.

***

It turned out getting a horse-drawn carriage to face the other direction on a narrow road was harder than it sounded, but eventually, with the help of more magic, they were on their way back to Dunwiddie — after Lucinda had cleared the enormous pile of bones away into the trees for the sake of other travelers, and declined offers to look for her hat. And now Sammie’s pace plodded enough that they would have plenty of time for the conversation they required.

“First things first!” said Lucinda from where she sat beside Ruby across from Jade. She pointed her wand at the latter and swished it, saying unnecessarily, “Unhex!”

The horns and hard crust disappeared in an instant, leaving only smooth ivory skin behind. Jade gasped, and ran her hands over her goosebumped arms all the way to her shoulders. Reaching up and gingerly touching her head, finding those horns gone as well, she started crying again.

“And let me try to fix your hair,” Lucinda added in some embarrassment, noting the bald spots. With another spell, they had vanished under a new layer of shining dark brown.

She let Jade have her moment to recover from recovering from the hex, and finally, earnestly said, “I’m really sorry for hexing you. I was sorry as soon as I did it, but I was too stubborn to find you and lift it.”

“I was stubborn too,” said Jade with a weak, regretful laugh. “I realized after a while that I deserved it, but I couldn’t bring myself to apologize.” She turned toward Ruby, and Lucinda thought the level of tears in her eyes rose a little higher. “Ruby, I’m so, so sorry about everything I said to you. You were right about so many things, and I was too proud to admit it.”

“I like your pride!” Ruby replied. “Whe~en it’s pointed in the right direction.”

“And I know you don’t really think you’re better than everyone in town. That was only… I’m not the biggest fan of royalty anymore, and that’s probably not going to change soon, but you haven’t changed. Well, you seem more independent now you have that job at the castle, but you’re just as nice, and you fit in Dunwiddie just as well as before.”

“And what about Sofia?” said Ruby, sounding like Ms. Candoo asking for homework. Not that Lucinda had ever attended the Dunwiddie school — witches were traditionally tutored by their mothers or other mentors — but she’d taken part in enough events there to know the teacher’s attitude.

Jade shifted uneasily, and went back to hugging her arms. “Sofia… I don’t know. I haven’t even seen her this year.”

“It’s barely May,” Lucinda pointed out.

“Yeah, maybe if you spent some more time with her, you’d realize she hasn’t betrayed Dunwiddie at all!”

Lucinda knew how difficult it could be to escape a bad frame of mind, so when Jade looked uncertain, she reached out and touched her hand where it rested in the crook of the opposite elbow. “Just give it a try. She’s worth that much, isn’t she?”

Now Jade nodded. “Definitely that much at least. All right. I’ll go to the castle and see her if I can.”

“You can walk with me when I go to work,” Ruby offered.

Tentatively Jade smiled. “All right.”

Lucinda felt the stirrings of jealousy. They weren’t going to get back together after everything that had happened, were they? Yet Ruby had told Lucinda, ‘I love you.’ That had to mean something! At any rate, jealousy was nothing she could show right now, and probably an emotion she shouldn’t even be feeling. She just wanted Ruby to be happy.

No, that was a lie. She wanted Ruby to be happy with her, and didn’t consider that impossible. Even so, Jade had already demonstrated what jealousy (among other things) could do to a relationship. Lucinda firmly pushed it back.

“You’re doing so well, Jade,” she said with a hesitant smile of her own. “I mean at… relenting.”

Jade admitted, “It took me a while. I was really mad at you at first.”

“You had every right to be mad! I never should have done it!”

“I watched you two, you know. Not every time you were in town together, but several times. And I noticed…” Jade’s eyes flicked to Lucinda, then away. “You were so polite and respectful, and you seemed like you were having so much fun… you laughed so easily…”

Her relationship with Ruby must indeed have been going badly, if Jade could call the fun and laughter Ruby and Lucinda had shared ‘easy.’ So much of it had been forced, or painful, or awkward.

“And driving deliveries, you have a lot of time alone to think. I realized you were right, Ruby. I was taking you for granted, undervaluing you, and expecting a lot from you that I never gave in return.”

Ruby squirmed, and Lucinda guessed she wasn’t exactly happy to have been right. “Well… That’s all in the past now. Right?”

“Still, I want to apologize.”

“And I want to forgive you!”

Jade’s smile was stronger this time, and as it grew, Lucinda could see the sadness in it. Jade knew. And now Lucinda could pity her for it, and fight off any triumph she might be inclined to feel.

“And that’s just an apology for what I did while we were dating,” Jade went on with a squaring of shoulders. “I also have to apologize for everything I said during that argument.”

“You already did that!” Ruby reminded her with half a chuckle.

“Oh. Yeah. Well, I feel like I can’t say it enough.” They all laughed a little. “It was so awful… so awful, in fact, that Lucinda felt the need to give me monster arms!” And they all laughed again, warming up to it.

Then Lucinda had to respond with, “I really shouldn’t have done that. I was trying so hard to be a good witch, and then… that.”

“But you’ve been a good witch for years!” Jade protested, appearing confused. “More than half your life, hasn’t it been?”

Of course Jade wasn’t aware of her struggle; they hadn’t talked once since Lucinda had returned. She might have picked up gossip about why the witch had abandoned her advanced training, but (aside from that being possibly a very inaccurate source) she wouldn’t really understand Lucinda’s position without having it explained. They’d all been good friends in previous years… It seemed strange to think about having opened her heart to Ruby but not to Jade.

Finally Lucinda said, “It’s been hard. My mother’s always put pressure on me to be wicked, but for the longest time I didn’t take that seriously, and thought she was really very supportive underneath. Then in Thaumopolis with Elinor — my great-great-grandmother–”

“Double G!” Ruby whispered.

Lucinda shot her a grin and went on. “She didn’t have a lot to teach me that wasn’t wicked too. But being around her got me back into some bad habits, and I was thinking for a while — a long time, really — that I just wasn’t cut out to be a good witch. That being wicked was in my blood.”

Jade’s eyes were wide. “I didn’t know.”

“You couldn’t have known.” Of course that was partially because Jade had been such a jerk since Lucinda’s return; but, as Ruby had said, that was all in the past now.

“So I pushed you into doing something that made you feel like that even more.”

“It wasn’t your fault. I won’t pretend you didn’t say some horrible things, but I was the one who stuck my nose into your business — and Ruby’s business — and did something completely inappropriate. I can’t just hex people whenever I get angry, or I really will never be a good witch.”

“And how are things now with your mom? I noticed you were kinda cold to her before she left.”

Lucinda sighed. “I don’t know, but I’m afraid not good. She let this happen, and up until two years ago, she was the one always pushing me to be wicked.”

“I kiiiinda shouted at her,” said Ruby. “About Irene.”

“You shouted at my mom?” Lucinda said blankly. She wasn’t sure if she should be grateful or disturbed.

Whether or not she sensed this uncertainty, Jade shifted the subject. “Who is Irene, exactly? I could see you were trying to stop her hexing Ruby, but I still wasn’t sure what I was rescuing all of you from.”

“Irene is my great-great-great-grandmother.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.”

“We’ve been calling her Triple G,” Ruby put in.

“She’s a very wicked witch. She wanted me to go back to Thaumopolis and resume my advanced training. All of it.”

Ruby continued the story. “She showed up at my house, and cast a spell over all three of us — my mom sprained her ankle, by the way — and kidnapped and brainwashed Lucinda.” She was massaging one hand with the other, from wrist to fingertip.

“And your mom let it happen,” Jade breathed, looking at Lucinda in horror.

Soberly Lucinda nodded, lips tightening and eyes burning.

“Triple G was there all week, and Mrs. Farmazoana just let her walk all over Lucinda. She came to my house when she couldn’t stand it anymore!”

“What are you going to do?”

The witch shook her head. “I still don’t know. But it’s going to start with a talk whenever mom and I are both back at home.”

“Do you want me to be there for moral support?” Ruby asked. She added, wry and teasing, “Or to shout at her if you don’t want to?”

Lucinda had to smile at that. “You don’t need to shout at her, but, yes, I think I’d like you to be there.” Almost automatically she took Ruby’s hand — the one that didn’t appear to be hurt — and laced their fingers together. Ruby seemed to blush, and Lucinda looked away to prevent further embarrassment.

She found their companion watching them with a wistful smile and maybe just a trace of jealousy. “I hope it goes really well,” Jade said with an effort.

Hastily Ruby asked, “What will you do?”

“I think Sammie needs a rest,” Jade replied, looking past them to the cart-horse diligently pulling the carriage, “and a treat! And I guess I do too. Need rest, I mean. In the long term… I have a lot more thinking to do. I need to… work on myself.”

“And we’ll be there for you,” said Ruby softly. Lucinda nodded in agreement.

***

Marla had already reached home by the time Lucinda and Ruby got there, and, for once, she didn’t jump up and meet them at the door. They found her sitting quietly in the kitchen, staring at nothing.

She started, though, when Lucinda said, “Mom?”

“Oh, honeywasp, you scared me!” With a hand pressed to her chest, she rose and took Lucinda’s arm. Looking her up and down she said, “You seem like you’re all right, my toadstool. No pain? No lingering desire to hex your friends?”

“Still only a headache,” Lucinda assured her, leading her back to her chair.

Ruby had already taken what she’d come to think of as her accustomed seat, and Marla winced when she saw her there. “Hello, Ruby, darling.” She sounded very uncertain whether or not Ruby would accept the endearment.

“Hello again, Mrs. Farmazoana,” said Ruby, trying to calm her with politeness. “I’m just here for moral support.”

Marla seemed relieved — probably that her guest wouldn’t yell at her again — but also still uncomfortable, and in fact as if she might jump back up at any moment. “Witchlet, would you like some tea? Cookies? Anything?”

Lucinda gestured a negative as she sat down near her mother, and laid her hands on the table. She opened her mouth, then closed it again with a shake of her head. A deep breath and a second try allowed her to say, “First tell us what happened at the castle.”

The thought of what might come second seemed to make Marla even more downcast, and she fidgeted, perhaps gathering her thoughts. “Yes, at the castle,” she finally said. “They took Irene into custody, and Lord Cedric assured me she would be held in a magic-dampening cell. I didn’t know they had one, but he promised it’s effective and humane.”

“He built it himself,” Ruby supplied, seeing Lucinda wasn’t going to, “because they’ve had so many magical criminals over the years!”

Marla nodded her understanding. “The trial will be held tomorrow. King Roland requested our presence and Jade’s. He looked very severe about it when I explained what Irene did. Well, as severe as King Roland ever looks.”

Ruby chuckled. The king, though in his fifties, balding, and grey, still had a face very much like an ingenuous fifteen-year-old’s. She quickly sobered again when she saw the set of Lucinda’s jaw.

“Thanks for taking her up there,” Lucinda said stiffly. “Now we need to talk.”

“I guess we do,” Marla sighed.

Lucinda cleared her throat. Ruby knew she had trouble with this type of conversation, even when entirely in the right — and since Lucinda clearly had doubts in this case, it must be that much harder for her.

After hesitating another long moment, Lucinda began with, “Do you see what evil has done to our family?” Her mother said nothing, so she went on. “I’m sure Triple G showed you that horrible book. All of our ancestors did cruel things to other people, and we glorified that. That’s what our family is known for: cruelty.”

“It’s true,” Mrs. Farmazoana murmured.

“And I know you’ve limited what you do, but it’s still somewhere on the scale of cruelty. You’ve let the family push you around and force you to be what you are now. It’s made you a worse person, and allowed Ruby, Mrs. Hanshaw, and I to get hurt.”

This time when Ruby reached for Lucinda’s hand, she did it right on top of the table instead of underneath. Lucinda held on hard.

“Baby, I’m so sorry,” Marla said in the same low tone as before. She sounded heartbroken.

“I know you are, mom.” Lucinda’s face had twisted into an expression that matched her mother’s voice. “I know you would never hurt me on purpose. But you let me get hurt, and that’s almost worse. You gave in to Triple G and let her abuse me. You let the family ideas about proper witchcraft weaken you.”

Marla dragged in a shaky breath, which reemerged as a sob. The tears that had been visibly building now spilled over. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“I know, mom. I know. And I’m not exactly mad at you… I’m hurt, though, and sad, and confused. I still love you, but I’ve realized I can’t stay with you anymore. It’s for my own safety — physical and moral. I have to distance myself from you. I hope you understand.”

With another sob, Mrs. Farmazoana broke down entirely. She conjured a handkerchief and buried her face in it, weeping loudly. Anything she might have tried to say was entirely lost in her gasping breaths and miserable cries. It was the most pathetic thing Ruby had ever seen, and she found herself choking up as she watched. Lucinda, far closer to the unhappiness, had tears pouring from her eyes, and her breathing was ragged.

It occurred to Ruby that this was very much like a breakup of lovers. She thought back to the day she’d split with Jade, and her heart gave a painful throb. Yes, very much like. Jade hadn’t cried quite this hard, but Ruby had. It was so difficult to tell someone you loved that she was no good for you. It must be so difficult to hear that from someone you loved. It didn’t surprise her at all when her own welling eyes gave way to the prevalent emotion.

Minutes passed, and, though the sorrow did not decrease, the crying began to be tedious. Even Marla gradually quieted. When she replaced her wet handkerchief with another two — one for nose, the second for eyes and cheeks and chin — it almost seemed they could talk again. But all three of them continued the maintenance of their faces for some time without looking at each other.

Eventually Lucinda took a trembling gulp of air and said, more or less levelly, “I’m really sorry about this. I hate hurting you. I wish I didn’t have to do this.”

It nearly set Marla off again, but she seemed to will her crumpled features back to normalcy. “I… d-do… understand,” she said haltingly, her voice raspy. “And I’m p-proud of you, witchlet. You’re s-stronger than I ever was.”

Lucinda obviously didn’t know what else there was to be said, yet couldn’t bring herself to rise.

Marla sat up very straight in her chair, pushed her hair back — her hat had fallen to the floor some time before — and squared her jaw. It seemed Lucinda had inherited from her that blotchiness of face after crying, for Marla looked as if she were unevenly sunburned. “If you’re going to… to leave the family,” she said, still hoarse but now resolute, “I’d rather you did it with me than without me.”

Her daughter’s eyes went wide. “Mom, what are you saying?”

“You’re right. I c-can’t ignore it anymore. They’re all evil, and I don’t want to be evil. I don’t want to let them tell me how to live my life. I don’t want to lose you.”

Lucinda was staring, her mouth slightly open. She didn’t speak, but Ruby could no longer hold her tongue. “Mrs. Farmazoana, do you mean you’re going to become a good witch?!”

“It won’t be Farmazoana anymore,” Marla declared. “I’ll choose a different name. And, yes. I’ll have a lot to learn, but yes. I’ll be a… g-good… witch. A good witch.”

Releasing Ruby’s hand, Lucinda plunged forward out of her chair and into her mother’s arms. Their positions made it a very awkward embrace, and they were crying again, but Ruby found herself smiling broadly. Her head had begun to throb from all the hydration she’d lost today, but she didn’t mind a few more tears right now. She did worry a little about Lucinda’s preexisting headache, though.

Of all possible outcomes of the conversation, this was the most desirable — and, Ruby had believed, the least likely, despite what Lucinda had reported about her mother’s words in a previous talk. She knew the relationship between mother and daughter had been strained ever since Lucinda’s return, and Lucinda hated that… and here was the perfect solution.

It would take Marla a lot of work, especially since the habit of hexing had been with her so much longer than Lucinda’s had before she became a good witch. But Marla had also been fatuously devoted to her daughter, as far as Ruby knew, forever. The only thing Ruby had ever seen Marla prioritize over Lucinda was the demands and traditions of the rest of her family. To leave that family behind, choose a new name, and cling to the next most important thing in her life would be difficult, but must be fulfilling in the end.

After another long interval, the hugging and sobbing and mutual apologizing came to an end. Lucinda stood straight and started to wipe her eyes with her hand, then apparently remembered she was a witch and conjured a handkerchief of her own.

Marla also stood, retrieved her hat from the floor and brushed it off, then put it on. “Well, I’d better get started right away! I don’t know the first thing about being a.. good witch.” She still tripped over the term somewhat. “You’ll help me, won’t you, frogspawn?”

The corners of Lucinda’s mouth turned up, and, though lopsided, it was a smile. An amused smile. A real smile. “You could start by calling me something nicer,” she said.

“Oh! Of course. Something like… like… like what?”

“Try… ‘daisy.’ That’s pretty simple.”

“My little daisy. Hmm. It feels strange, but I think it will do!”

“And remember all the work we did to make this place as wicked a possible before Triple G’s visit?”

“Oh, yes, that’ll all have to be undone. Except the cleaning, of course!”

“You can decorate however you want now!” said Lucinda enthusiastically. “And wear whatever you want!”

“No more vampire bats in the kitchen!” Marla grinned.

The satisfied Lucinda replied, “Exactly.”

“You’ll help us again, won’t you, Ruby?”

“Of course!” Ruby laughed. “Getting rid of that stuff will be even more fun than putting it up!”

“This is so much to take in at once,” Marla said, looking around as if already planning a number of alterations to the decor. “Do you think we should take some pictures to capture the moment?”

“My face probably looks as bad as yours does,” Lucinda replied with a roll of eyes. “Besides, didn’t you say once that some moments you’ll remember forever?”

“All right; we’ll wait until we’ve redecorated the house. I don’t know anything about good decorating, so I’m counting on you, Ruby. And I suppose I’d better practice a less wicked cackle! And come up with something to do instead of hexing people… What if I’m not… what if I can’t do this?”

“Mrs.– er– Lucinda’s mom, did you know that Lord Cedric once tried to overthrow the king?”

Both Lucinda and Marla looked at her, startled.

“He was an evil sorcerer for many years, scheming to take the throne and rule Enchancia. If Sofia hadn’t insisted on giving him a second chance, he would have been banished, or imprisoned for life. And you can see now how he’s turned his life around.”

“I never knew that,” Marla murmured.

Lucinda said, “I didn’t either!”

“Sofia doesn’t like it to get around,” Ruby admitted. “She wouldn’t want people to stop trusting him when he’s proven his loyalty so many times since it happened. She only told me because… well, because I needed to hear it right then. And I think she’d be all right with me telling you for the same reason.”

“And the king even changed his title in thanks for his services to the kingdom.” Marla’s expression slowly grew into an almost disbelieving grin. “I just spoke to him today! I had no idea!”

Lucinda looked a little forlorn. “She could have told me that. There were definitely times when I needed to hear it.”

“Maybe she thought you could get by without it!”

Lucinda perked up in a deliberate, full-body movement, probably for the sake of her mother, and shot Ruby a grin. “So you see, mom, if he can change and become Lord Royal Sorcerer Cedric the Sensational, you can change too.”

“I’m going to change.” Marla sobered as she said it, as if the true gravity of this resolution was settling in at last. “I’m going to change everything.”

“But it’ll be good, mom. You’ll see. It’ll all be so good.”

***

When Lucinda had informed her mother of her plan to walk Ruby home, check on Mrs. Hanshaw, and retrieve the things she’d left at their house, Marla had again used the g-word without blinking. It helped that Marla could see what had been growing between Lucinda and Ruby, and would probably like to see it go even further. But Lucinda believed it had most to do with Marla’s need for some time alone to ponder the step she’d just taken.

Lucinda’s joy was the placid kind, the weary but optimistic kind that took hold at the end of a long struggle — and a long day! for the sun was setting as she and Ruby started toward the village — but it sometimes bubbled up into giddy glee quite unexpectedly.

“Oh, Ruby, I’m so happy!” she cried just when they’d closed the back gate behind them. She flung her arms around her friend so they teetered and swerved across the lane. “I didn’t realize how sad I was until this. Thank you so much for shouting at my mom earlier; I don’t know if she would even have realized what she did wrong without that. And thank you for being there with me just now! I don’t know if I would ever have worked up the nerve to talk to her without you!”

Ruby hugged her back fiercely. “You’re welcome for everything I did, but I have more faith in you and your mom than that. You guys would have figured it out somehow!”

“Even Triple G ended up doing something for us,” said Lucinda, calming: “She pushed it farther than my mom was willing to stand for, and got herself locked in a cell where she belongs.”

Seeming loath to dim the mood, Ruby nevertheless asked, “Do you think your family might send someone else after you… or your mom?”

Lucinda pondered for a moment, and finally had to say, “I don’t know. We’ll need to be ready if they do, but… When I said the family had weakened mom, I was serious. Because of them, she wouldn’t allow herself to do good magic, but because of her conscience, I guess, she wouldn’t do the really powerful wicked magic either. There are plenty of neutral spells, but she was kinda stuck there in between, and never lived up to her potential.”

“So now that she’s going to be good….” Ruby began, with another smile growing.

“Who knows how powerful she can be?” Lucinda grinned. “I almost want someone from the family to come after us, just to see mom throwing all the good spells she’s learned at them. They won’t know what hit them!”

Ruby pushed up against her again and took her hand. “I’m so glad you’re happy! And now you and your mom can help each other stay good!”

“That’s right!” The joy bubbled up again, and Lucinda swung Ruby around until they were both breathless. “But I’ve got you too! You’ve been wonderful — so supportive when no one else was. Thank you so much.”

“You too!” Ruby said. “I feel so much better now, and it’s because of you!”

“Really? Because I always felt like I couldn’t help you. There really wasn’t anything I could say…”

“What you did say did help. You made me happy when I was down, and gave me something to think about other than Jade and the breakup. And you listened. You cared about my problems. You’re the second entry on my list of things that make me happy, you know!”

“Oh!” cried Lucinda. Her blush disappeared quickly in her new excitement. “First of all, I’m very glad I could do something for you. I’m so happy you’re happier now. But second, I forgot to tell you about the idea you gave me.”

“What is it?” Ruby’s eyes crinkled in amusement.

“That list you made… wow, I can’t believe that was this morning.”

Ruby gave her a look that demonstrated her wondering agreement.

“Well, anyway–” Lucinda had to shake that off before continuing– “I thought your list was such a good idea, I decided to make one of my own. Not of things that make me happy, but of… principles I want to follow. I’ll memorize it, and recite it to myself until I can say it in my sleep, and when I get into a situation where I want to hex someone, I’ll be able to call on it in an instant.”

“That’s wonderful! Oh, Lulu, that’s wonderful! But you do know that you gave me the list idea in the first place, right?”

“We’ve just been building on the same idea, and I don’t know who started it. But this latest development was definitely inspired by you.”

“I’m sure it’ll work! I know you can do it! I wouldn’t be surprised if you never hexed anyone for the rest of your life.”

Lucinda beamed.

“There’s another reason,” said Ruby more seriously. “When you were under Triple G’s spell, you pointed your wand right in my face, and you were about to hex me. But you didn’t. Even under her wicked spell, you didn’t. You were that strong.”

Blushing again but at last feeling no awkwardness between them, Lucinda stopped in place. Ruby took one more step, then turned back to face her. “That’s…” Lucinda said, “because you said you love me.”

Earnestly Ruby met Lucinda’s gaze. She released her hand, then slipped her arms around Lucinda’s waist. “I hope I can always give you that strength.” And she leaned her head against Lucinda’s cheek.

The witch reciprocated, pulling Ruby tight and turning just enough to press her lips to Ruby’s hair. And when Ruby finally drew back, leaving her hands on Lucinda’s hips, Lucinda brought her own up to cup Ruby’s face as she looked down into her eyes.

“When I was under that spell,” she said softly, “everything was black and purple, which are not my favorite colors anymore. All the true colors were gone, and the whole world looked so dark. It was easier to believe I wasn’t and never had been good when everything around me was so dismal. But for some reason, your eyes… I saw your eyes the way they really are.”

Ruby smiled at her, then met her at the point halfway between them. As their lips touched, Lucinda felt the joy springing up again, too intense and exuberant to be pushed down, as if her blood had been filled with soap bubbles that her heart magnified and proliferated until she thought she might float off the ground without a broomstick.

Had she been watching someone else in a situation like this, she would have surreptitiously sent a shimmering wave spiraling around them and reaching to the sky, where stars would fall and fireworks explode. And they probably wouldn’t have noticed. But since it was she and Ruby in the situation, she only felt it happening somewhere inside her.

Ruby was smiling again as she pulled away. “I do love you, you know,” she whispered.

“And I love you.” Lucinda pushed out her lips and kissed Ruby on the nose.

Giggling, Ruby squirmed free of the hand Lucinda had threaded through her locks. But she left the one that had slid to her back, as well as her own arm around Lucinda’s waist, and now she cuddled up into this new position close against her, and continued walking. “You can bet my mom saw this coming,” she said.

Lucinda grinned. “Mine too.”

I wrote this for the Small Fandoms Bang on Dreamwidth. The idea (well, part of it) had been floating around my head for a while, and this was the perfect excuse to get it written. The adorable picture was drawn by oldestcharm.

The abuse in this story makes it more serious, but I wanted to capture the sweetness and softness of Sofia the First and just age it up a bit. And I think this is a dilemma that an adult Sofia would absolutely want to help her friends solve… if she weren’t the busiest princess on the continent. (I didn’t throw that part in merely to explain why she’s not involved here; I really do think she’d have, like, five professions as an adult XD)

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