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Melita was just finishing her last cup of tea for the day when she heard the unexpected footsteps outside.
She paused, cup suspended halfway to her lips. It was too late in the day for representatives from the chemical plant, and anyway she hadn’t gotten any signs of an impending visit…She stood up as the footsteps grew louder, crunching over the gravel path and then up the porch steps.
There was a loud rapping from the knocker. ‘Mother?’ came a muffled voice outside. ‘Are you in?’
Melita relaxed and, putting down her teacup, hurried to the door. ‘Yasmina!’ she said on opening it. ‘You didn’t tell me you were coming.’
Yasmina, face crumpled with weariness, gave an exhausted nod. ‘Yeah. I’m sorry, Mother, but I had to see you…’
‘Come in, then.’ Melita took her daughter’s suitcase as she stumbled in, swaying. Up close, Yasmina looked awful: alarmingly thin, with dark pouches under her eyes. ‘Yasmina, what’s the matter?’
‘It…I…’ Yasmina waved a hand. ‘I can’t explain it here. Can we sit down?’
‘Of course. I’ll make you some tea.’
A glimmer of Yasmina’s old self showed as she gave a tiny smirk. ‘Without honey, I hope?’
‘Very funny.’ Melita made a swatting motion, though she couldn’t help smiling in return. ‘Go sit down.’
Yasmina trailed into the living room, shoulders slumped, while Melita recommenced making tea. As she did so, her mind whirled: what on earth could have happened? It wasn’t like Yasmina to show up unannounced, let alone so late in the evening. And what could have gotten her into such a state?
The kettle boiled, and Melita poured out the tea. Loading the teacups, along with some iced cakes, onto a tray, she entered the living room, where Yasmina lay back in a chair in the soft alembic light, eyes closed.
‘Here we go.’ Yasmina’s eyes opened, and she straightened enough to take a cup and a cake. Melita watched her consume them slowly. ‘Is Nat with you?’
Yasmina stiffened, eyes suddenly wary. ‘No.’ She put her cup down. ‘Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Mother.’
Melita’s voice hardened. ‘Hasn’t done you wrong, has he?’
‘No.’ Yasmina looked utterly ashamed and—if possible—even more tired. ‘I…I’ve done him wrong.’
Melita let out a long, resigned sigh. ‘Oh, Yasmina.’
‘Yeah.’ Yasmina stared at the carpet. ‘I’m not asking for sympathy. It was a very stupid decision, in a very stupid moment.’
‘I expect it was.’ Melita took a sip, eyeing her daughter. ‘But there’s something more, isn’t there?’
‘Yeah. The man…he’s blackmailing me. He had a hidden imager. He showed me the prints and…they’re awful. Really nasty. If I don’t pay up, they’ll be all over the Connect. It’ll probably be the end of my career. Certainly the end of my marriage.’
Melita took a moment before replying, choosing her words carefully. ‘I need hardly tell you it was an idiotic idea in the first place, Yasmina.’
‘I know. It was a drinks thing…I was pretty smashed. But that’s no excuse.’
Melita sighed. ‘Well, it’s not as though this has never happened before. What’s this blackmailer’s name?’
‘He said it was Leif Asgeir.’
Melita’s expression went quite still. She stood up and turned away from Yasmina, facing the wide mirror over the fireplace. She could see her own face, like a statue of ebony with eyes of onyx, framed by her long, greying hair. Beyond, she could see Yasmina—small, bronze-skinned, and black-haired—watching her anxiously.
‘Mother?’ she said at last.
Melita composed herself, turning to her daughter with her best attempt at a reassuring smile. ‘Well, whoever he is, we’ll deal with him. You’re safe enough tonight, I take it?’
‘Yes.’ Yasmina stared at her, obviously still wondering. ‘He’s given me until next week to pay up. But Mother, even if I pay now, he’ll just demand more money, again and again…!’
‘Of course,’ Melita said soothingly. ‘You did the right thing. Come on, neither of us can think like this. I’ll make up your old room, and you get some sleep. We’ll decide what to do in the morning.’
Yasmina insisted on helping make up the bed, though she was so tired, she fumbled the sheets more than she tucked them in. Melita left her alone to get undressed; when she checked later, Yasmina was lying limp and unconscious, the light still illuminating her thin, exhausted face.
Melita brushed a stray strand of hair from Yasmina’s forehead and laid a gentle kiss on the younger woman’s brow before snapping the lamp off and leaving the room.
Alone once more, her face hardened. Thoughts awhirl, she went to her own room, overlooking the garden. Moonlight glinted on the black ocean, two miles away. She could hear the distant roar of waves.
There was a sudden buzzing sound. One of the bees hovered outside her closed window, its furry red-gold body glinting slightly in the light from Melita’s bedroom lamp. It tapped against the glass three times before flying away.
The sign was clear: she could expect further company, more sinister than Yasmina. Face grim, Melita prepared for bed.
Yasmina didn’t rise until late the next day. By the time she stumbled, yawning, onto the back porch, Melita had gathered in the day’s harvest, sending a load of long green pods tumbling into their containers. Yasmina watched a moment. ‘Still sending them to the processing plant?’
Melita wiped away sweat and nodded. ‘Business is strong.’
Yasmina descended the porch, shaking her head at the tall, luxuriant bushes, covered in blood-red flowers, that surrounded the house in all directions. ‘So weird. How did you breed these bushes to leach toxins from the soil?’ She flicked a sequestration pod, still shriveled and thin; it would be a while before it was ready for harvesting. ‘Not to mention store them so neatly.’
‘The wonders of genetic manipulation. They really work, too.’
Yasmina yawned. ‘Well, I guess it’s a good thing. Can’t have industrial spills poisoning the ecosystem…’
Yasmina went into the shed and came out with gloves and mesh. She began work, spreading the mesh under the tall bushes and pulling ripe pods, letting them tumble down while bees rose in buzzing annoyance. She looked a lot better today, Melita noticed with relief, though she was still avoiding her mother’s eye. They worked a moment in silence, broken only by the bees.
‘So,’ said Yasmina suddenly, still without looking at Melita, ‘where do you know Leif Asgeir from?’ At Melita’s look, she gave an exasperated sigh. ‘Come on, I’m not stupid.’
Melita pulled herself together. ‘It was a long time ago.’
Yasmina raised an eyebrow. ‘How long could it be? He wasn’t that old.’
That’s what you think, Yasmina dear. ‘Well—’
At that moment, one of the bees buzzed loudly in Melita’s ear, while Yasmina snapped up at the sound of an approaching vehicle. ‘Someone’s coming!’
Melita had already circled halfway around the house, lifting aside a swag of flowers to peer onto the driveway. The small motor conveyance parked and a figure came out, one that made Melita’s heart clench.
She hurriedly made her way back to the backyard. ‘It’s him,’ she said briefly. ‘Go hide.’
Yasmina jittered in panic. ‘How’d he get here so fast?!’
Yasmina whirled away, dodging behind a large bush and disappearing quickly among the blood-red blooms. She’d probably go to earth among the greenhouses at the far end of the property; Melita trusted the bees to look after her. She only wished they could do the same for her.
She straightened, smoothed her dirt- and plant-stained clothes, and headed into the house, mouth a grim line.
He was waiting on her front porch; she could see his blurred profile through the warped glass of the door. She took a deep breath and opened it. ‘Hello, Leif.’
He grinned, framed by the doorway. ‘Hi, Melita.’ He was as blond as ever, eyes grey against that flawless skin. Of course, he had not let himself age as Melita had; only his eyes, old and hard, revealed his true years as they traveled up and down Melita. ‘Or are you using a different name now?’
‘It’s Melita.’ Melita didn’t move. ‘What do you want, Leif?’
Melita raised an eyebrow. ‘And what do you call seducing my daughter and then blackmailing her? Aside from petty and pathetic, of course.’
That lightning grin again, sending a jolt through Melita despite herself. ‘We both know she wasn’t my real target, Melita. May I come in?’
Melita hesitated, but knew there was no way around it. She stepped back, and Leif stepped inside.
She felt an irrational surge of anger that he was even looking at her cozy front hall, that his eyes touched her jackets, her piles of shoes, her carpet; she wanted to shout at him to leave her things alone. Instead, she said, ‘How about some tea?’
‘Still a great one for tea, eh?’ Leif followed her into the kitchen and sat at the old scarred table, watching while she brewed the two cups. Her eyes kept wandering to the glass jar of honey on the windowsill, glowing red-gold in the sunlight, but she brewed and poured the tea without touching it.
Leif sipped his cup. ‘Nice. You always did like those smoked teas.’
Melita suddenly ran out of patience. ‘Leif, what is it that you want?’
‘You, of course.’ Leif’s eyes gleamed at her over his teacup. ‘I’ve been thinking about the old days. Missing them. Have you?’
‘Now that’s a lie. Lysandra the Venom-Witch, terror of men, toppler of armies, dark legend and queen of nightmares—content to waste the dregs of her power on a patch of poisonous earth and a garden?’ Leif snorted. ‘People don’t change that much, Lysandra.’
Melita sat very still, the memories stirred by that name—Lysandra the Venom-Witch—reverberating through her.
Terror of men, indeed. ‘I gave up that name,’ she said last, ‘over 300 years ago, Leif.’
‘Yes—and why did you? That defeat with that old hag wasn’t such a blow.’
Not such a blow? Melita could have laughed; it had taken her a full century just to regain enough strength to leave that cave where she’d crawled after the battle, dragging herself out of its cool shadows to see the blasted, barren waste that she had created over those centuries of madness and murder. No people, no sound, even after 100 years: just the whistle of the wind and the relentless pounding of the waves.
‘Something about seeing the results of unchecked power, I suppose,’ she said. ‘All this area is still poisoned, you know.’
Leif rolled his eyes. ‘So you’re growing your garden and leaching out the pollution as an act of repentance?’
‘Something like that.’
Leif gave a scoffing laugh. ‘Then you definitely don’t deserve your power.’ He took another sip of tea.
Melita watched him. ‘I couldn’t give it to you,’ she said, ‘even if I wanted to. It’s all bound up in the plants and the garden—what’s left of it.’
Leif gave her a sly smile. ‘I’m sure you could think of a way. You were the greatest witch who ever lived, after all.’
‘And look at me. Why do you even want the power?’
‘Like I say—I miss the old days. I’m tired of being a penny-sorcerer, a small-time con artist. I want power again—and I don’t want to ride your coattails this time.’
Melita bit back another laugh. Leif never had understood the price of power; why did he think there were so few witches left? ‘And if I don’t cooperate,’ she said slowly, ‘I suppose you’ll hurt Yasmina? That’s why you seduced her in the first place, isn’t it? To show you could get at her.’
Leif had the gall to wink. ‘Well, you were the one to adopt her. Why did you do such a foolish thing to begin with?’
‘She was an orphan who needed me—not that you’d understand that. So. Let’s get on to the true negotiations, shall we?’
Melita laid down her teacup and placed her hands on the table. ‘You can’t get at Yasmina here in my garden, not in the heart of my power. What’s to stop me keeping her here, safe?’
‘The fact that you don’t have the power to bend another’s thoughts anymore. You can’t convince her it’s all her own idea, and you certainly can’t imprison her against her will. Eventually, she’ll leave, and you won’t be able to stop her. And then…’ He grinned and gave a tiny snap of his gleaming teeth.
Melita showed nothing of the flash of pure rage that pulsed through her at that gesture. ‘Come back tomorrow night,’ she said. ‘You’ll have your answer then.’
Leif knew he had won. It showed in his smile, his very hair gleaming with satisfaction as he stood. ‘Until tomorrow night, then.’
Melita nodded as he exited the kitchen. ‘Until tomorrow.’
She waited until she heard his engine starting before she stood up to seek Yasmina.
One of the bees, a fat, healthy worker, led her to her daughter, who had sought shelter near a group of great, smooth boulders, hulking like islands among the sea of red flowers. Yasmina, dirt-streaked and huge-eyed, looked up from under a particularly large bush. ‘Mother?’ She stood up, darting anxiously to Melita. ‘Are you alright? What did he say?’
‘I’m fine.’ Melita fended off her daughter’s anxious fluttering. ‘He’s gone. But he’ll be back tomorrow night.’
‘Tomorrow night!’ Yasmina broke away to pace agitatedly. ‘We need to do something.’ She bit her lip. ‘Maybe I should just…I don’t know, kill my pride and call the constabulary on him.’ She attempted a brave smile. ‘It’s the honourable thing to do, isn’t it?’
Melita wondered just how long the average constable would last against Leif, even in his reduced state. Three minutes? Four? ‘It may be honourable,’ she said, ‘but honour can be defended without destroying your marriage and your career. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him.’
‘How?’ Yasmina gave her a horrified glance. ‘You’re not thinking of paying him, are you? Mother—!’
‘No, no,’ Melita soothed. ‘We’ve just come to an accommodation, that’s all. We are old acquaintances, after all. Don’t worry. His business is with me now.’
‘What?’ Yasmina’s eyes widened. ‘What’s he done to you?’
‘Nothing. Relax. Like I said, we’ve come to an accommodation. Nothing violent.’
‘He’s not blackmailing you too?’
‘I already told you: no.’
Yasmina relaxed a bit at this, some of the frantic worry draining from her eyes. It was always easier to convince people of things they wanted to believe; Melita knew this from long experience. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m sure.’ Melita hesitated. ‘Just…don’t go anywhere, alright? Don’t leave the property until…until after he’s gone. I think it’s better if you stay out of sight.’
Yasmina gave a somewhat bitter laugh. ‘Hey, where would I go? I’m not risking running into him.’
And that’s a better idea than you will ever realise. ‘Glad to hear it.’ Melita paused. ‘Does Nat know where you are?’
Yasmina nodded. ‘I told him I was visiting you. Took a few days off work.’
‘Good.’ Melita nodded. ‘Well, you can relax now. He won’t be back until tomorrow night. Come on, you can help me with today’s harvest.’
‘Alright.’ Yasmina took a deep breath and ran her hands through her hair before following Melita back to work.
Though no longer gibbering with panic, Yasmina was quiet the rest of the day, or perhaps she was no longer used to long hours of physical labour. In any case, she went to bed soon after supper, and Melita had the night to herself.
She stepped outside, taking a deep breath. The scent of her flowers, of vibrant growing leaves and thrustful stems, mixed with the eternal tang of the sea, floated into her lungs. Overhead, the last of the day melted gently into the star-spangled sky, and the shadows were deep as Melita drifted like a white-clad ghost down through her garden, holding a knife and a bowl.
The bees, ever attuned to her thoughts and emotions, buzzed in groups and swarms tonight, huddling on branches and crowning the tops of bushes. As Melita silently passed, they followed, zigzagging and swarming after her. They wended through the vast garden, through shadow and flower and dim pale light, until they reached the ragged mouth of the cave.
It was here that Melita had spent that century recovering her strength, and here the bees had taken over when she had moved out, building a vast nest of wax and comb—and honey. The nest was awake now, stray workers flying like sparks around the cave mouth, the entire complex humming with foreboding bee-song.
Melita stood outside the cave, observing them. They were such strange insects, these bees that had spent uncounted generations feasting on the venomous red flowers she’d grown from her poisoned land. It was no wonder their honey was so…unique.
Melita had no veil or protective suit, but still she entered the bee-cave fearlessly, its denizens parting for her like a curtain as she raised the knife, flashing silver in the moonlight.
When she emerged, a large comb hulked in her bowl, dripping honey, still with a few bees buzzing around it. Holding her prize double-handed, she disappeared quickly into the night, leaving only the bees to watch and speculate.
Late the next morning, Yasmina paused to wipe sweat from her brow. ‘So hot!’ she said. ‘I’m not used to this anymore.’
‘Spoiled city girl,’ Melita teased. ‘You can stop anytime, you know.’
Yasmina shook her head and fumbled with string as she tried to tie another bundle of pods. ‘I’m not leaving you to do all the work. Not when you’ve done so much to help me.’ She smiled ruefully. ‘However little I deserve it.’
‘Oh, don’t give yourself too many airs.’ Melita tossed down a bundle. ‘You’re hardly the first married woman to make a foolish choice while drunk.’
‘Well, I’ve learned my lesson.’ Yasmina shook her head grimly. ‘I just hope we get out of this successfully.’
Melita thought of the concoction currently brewing in her stillroom. Me too.
Yasmina finally got her bundle tied and threw it into the wheelbarrow. She let out a breath, eyes traveling over the garden. ‘I’d forgotten how beautiful this place is.’ She let out a little laugh. ‘But so quiet!’
Melita could hardly deny it. No birds sang in her garden, no crickets chirped; one never saw the smooth flex of a snake gliding away, nor the quick flick of a lizard. Only the bees’ buzz and the seagulls’ distant cries broke the silence that reigned over the wind-ruffled labyrinth of flowering red bushes. ‘Only the bees can live here. Even now.’
Yasmina cocked her head. ‘How long can it take to leach pollution out? You’ve been at this longer than I’ve been alive, haven’t you?’
Melita wondered what it must be like, being so young that 27 years seemed an eternity. ‘Industrial poisons aren’t that easy to clean up. We’re lucky my plants can do it safely.’ She took up another load of long pods, all plump with toxins, and began tying them together.
Yasmina smirked a little. ‘Even if you can’t actually eat the honey.’
‘No,’ agreed Melita. ‘But the plant will pay a lot for it. These chemicals can be found almost nowhere else.’
‘Did you ever hear that old story?’ Yasmina said thoughtfully. ‘The one people in town used to tell? That there was this evil witch, the Venom Lady or something, whose magic was so poisonous it blasted the entire area?’
‘What nonsense,’ said Melita crisply. ‘You’re too old to believe in witches. This is pollution from an industrial accident, nothing more. Now, help me get these to the processing shed.’
Yasmina lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow but didn’t move. She scanned the garden and let out a long breath.
‘Good thing there’s no such thing as witches,’ she said. ‘Be pretty awful if Leif was one, wouldn’t it?’
There was a short pause.
‘Yes,’ Melita said at last. ‘I suppose it would be.’
Later that day, with Yasmina safely occupied in the processing shed, she visited the stillroom. After some final preparations, she carried a bottle, heavy with a gleaming liquid, into the house where she hid it securely.
After a congenial dinner, full of laughter and conversation, Yasmina went to bed early. Melita waited in the kitchen, one last cup of tea steaming before her, until she was sure her daughter was deeply asleep.
Levering herself slowly from the table, she went to change her clothes, moving softly, quietly, as she donned her old black robe. Back in the kitchen, she filled a long-stemmed glass, the golden fluid burbling from its bottle in the silent kitchen. Carrying the glass in one hand, she stepped outside.
It was a windy night. The breeze, scented with flowers and salt, blew through the bushes, making their branches creak and their leaves sigh. Melita was not surprised to find Leif already waiting for her, like a pale ghost in the wild dark.
‘Well?’ he said simply.
Melita turned and led him through the garden, barely visible in the night with her long dark hair and black robe. Still, he kept up with her easily, a few steps behind, as he had so often throughout their lives.
‘Are we ever going to do this?’ Leif called out eventually. She could almost hear his eyes narrowing in suspicion. ‘I hope you’re not planning anything clever, Lysandra.’
Melita could feel the power pulsing through her bare soles; she was sensitised tonight as she had not been for a long, long time. She turned back to Leif slowly, the wind whipping through her curtain of hair.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Here will do.’ They stood in a clearing among Melita’s plants, not far from the cave. She held out the glass.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘is the essence of my power, leached from the earth by flowers, drunk from the flowers by bees, made into honey by their industry, and then distilled by me. Drink this, and you will receive all my strength. Drink this, and my power will enter you. Do you accept?’
Leif managed not to roll his eyes; he had always despised the solemn rituals of power, even as he utilised them for his own benefit. ‘I do.’
Leif took the drink, hesitated one moment—was he, even now, afraid?—and then drained the glass.
Almost immediately, his eyes lit. ‘Oh,’ he breathed. ‘Oh.’
Melita waited silently.
‘Oh, Lysandra,’ he said, flexing his fingers. ‘Oh, you were still so strong!’ He channelled the power, and purple lightning flashed among his fingers. ‘Oh…ah…oh!’
He doubled over suddenly, clutching his middle. The glass fell to the earth. His face was a sudden rictus.
Melita folded her arms. ‘Now, Leif,’ she said, ‘what else did you expect?’
No doubt, Leif would have replied with something but was unable at that moment to speak. There was a strange, crackling noise. His gasps went on, in agonised hiccups.
‘Don’t you remember the old saying?’ Melita went on. ‘“Never eat from the Venom-Witch’s hand!” Don’t you remember how many I killed, how my power poisoned this earth?’ She gave a hard, angry laugh. ‘I used to kill men just for fun. Did you really think you could threaten my daughter and get away with it?’
Leif had ceased to gasp; he had ceased to breathe. A green pall was spreading over his face, his arms raised above his head, leaves spreading out, roots digging into the earth.
‘The honey from my bees kills outright, in its rawest form,’ Melita hissed. ‘It’s pure poison. Distilled—oh, what venom! But you have what you wanted, Leif. You are one with my power, now and forever.’
The thin, pale sapling before her shivered but made no reply.
Melita picked up the fallen glass and turned to go back to the house. Her mouth was a hard, terrible line, in the face of one who had killed thousands of people over centuries of life, and who did not regret this one death. For Yasmina’s sake, she would have killed thousands more. But—her breath caught—oh, how she’d hoped she’d never have to kill anyone again. From the moment she’d emerged from the cave, and seen the legacy of death and poison her power had wrought—she had hoped, and done her best, to avoid more death.
But old habits died hard. And venom, it seemed, was most enduring.