Scent wafted from the tube where the perfume had steeped with magic essences. Kallia leaned forward, anticipating the first ethereal, ephemeral notes–
A blast of rotting eggs, wet dog, and moldy potatoes swamped her, making her nose run and her eyes water.
Coughing and snorting, she rocked back and held the vial as far away from her Armani-clad body as possible. The disgusting scent now moved into over-ripe chicken manure and clogged sewer. Ignoring her weeping eyes and nose, she capped the vial firmly, wondering how she’d gone so wrong. At least she had a back-up for her appointment this evening.
As she dabbed at her nose, the tinkling chime announced a visitor to the boutique. She tucked the stinking vial far under the counter. Kallia composed her face into pleasing lines and looked up, all grace and elegance.
“Welco–” The automatic greeting died on her lips. She should have known.
Her cousin, a mousy woman in rough jeans and an over-large flannel shirt, stood three steps within the boutique, her face screwed up in disgust. Her muddy boots left smudges on the marble tile floor indicating exactly how many steps she’d taken.
“Whew, Kelli! That reeks. That’s what your big-city clients like to smell? Jeez, send ’em out to the dump.” She pinched her nose shut with one hand while waving the other before her to ward off the smell.
With a snap of her fingers, Kallia started the silent exhaust fan. In seconds the stench was gone, replaced by a pleasant, neutral fresh-air scent that had taken her a year to perfect.
“No, Jezzie, that was a mistake. And I’m Kallia now, not Kelli.”
“Oh. Okay. I’m Lucy this time.” Kallia’s cousin swiveled her neck, inspecting the boutique from floor to ceiling the way the tourists did. When they could find the shop, that is. Kallia kept it exclusive.
“Fine. Lucy. What are you doing here?” Kallia wasn’t happy to see her cousin. The woman was a pest, no, a pestilence. Every time she arrived, a string of unhappy coincidences followed. Their witchcraft styles ran counter to one another. Lucy’s talent revealed underlying truths of the things around her, while Kallia’s smoothed things into more pleasing, idealized shapes. The way a thing ought to appear. When they met, more often than not it was Kallia’s visions that suffered. With her current clientele, there just wasn’t the room for Lucy in Kallia’s life.
“Auntie Gert sent me to check up on you. Said she hasn’t heard from you, and she wanted to be sure you were getting on all right.”
“Auntie Gert” was Kallia’s mother, of course. Kallia snorted before she could stop herself. She pursed her lips and pinched her nose tight to stop any other suspect noises. “I’ve sent her email. At least once a month.”
Lucy laughed. “Your mother won’t go near that old computer. This new technology doesn’t agree with her. Last week she planted it.”
“Right after it sprouted. Tried to root to the table. Now it’s growing a foot or so each week in the side garden. She expects black apples from it next year.”
Which meant her mother had cursed it. Kallia opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the tinkling of the bells as the door opened again.
A middle-aged woman, shoulders hunched and head down, bustled inside then stopped dead in her tracks, staring at Lucy. With a wide-eyed expression she turned to Kallia. “I should come back later,” she began, her hand catching the door before it closed.
Kallia glided forward, forcing Lucy to step aside as she grasped the customer gently but firmly by the arm and drew her further inside.
“Nonesense, Mrs. Gupta. I have your order ready, and this poor lost soul was just leaving.” As Kallia led her client to the locked glass case at the front of the tiny shop, she glared at Lucy. Her cousin waved a hand and disappeared. Muddy footsteps tracked behind the counter to the workshop area’s stool.
Kallia’s brow furrowed. She waved her hand toward the muddy prints. They disappeared. She opened the case before her and withdrew a small cut-crystal jar, then looked up to see Mrs Gupta frowning at her.
“Whatever have you done with your hair?”
Kallia raised a hand to her head. Her smooth tresses, normally sleek as a crow’s wing, frizzed around her head like a halo.
“Uh, humidity,” she lied, then redirected the conversation. “Now, here’s your order. As we discussed, you must take a small sip–just a tablespoon–each evening.”
Mrs. Gupta’s hand reached out, touched the faceted vial like a precious gem. She snatched it to her, clutching it to her chest as her fingers curled into talons. “How long until … I see results?”
“Within a week, your husband will be looking at you differently. In two, he’ll be so fascinated with you, no other woman will matter to him,” she assured the woman. Kallia watched her expression flow from pinched with worry to relieved, taking years from her face.
“As it should be. After giving him four children, he’ll not be rid of me so easily.”
The transaction was completed, and Mrs. Gupta strode out, her back straight and chin high. Kallia watched her go, half-convinced the renewed confidence alone would save her marriage.
“Who’s her husband that he’s so dear?” Lucy said. She popped into view beside Kallia, her hand brushing a frowsy lock of hair away from Kallia’s temple. Kallia frowned, remembering her ruined hair. Too late now. Lucy was here. She moved to the door, locked it and turned the sign to Closed.
“An investment banker. Same old story: young hot talent at work, he starts working late, takes numerous business trips, and his secretary gives her pitying glances when she appears at his office only to find him ‘out to lunch.'”
“Sounds like your type,” Lucy said. “Loaded, an easy target. Are you getting any of him?”
Kallia faced her cousin, but Lucy’s face was as openly curious as her voice. She relaxed. It’s just her way, she reminded herself. “I don’t poach on clients. Bad for business.”
Lucy’s lopsided grin quirked the left side of her face. “Yeah, I bet it wouldn’t look too good if your potions didn’t work ’cause the “other woman” was you.” Her laughter filled the room. Kallia waited, trying to hold on to her patience.
“Finished?” she asked.
“No. Why do you care? About the business, I mean. I still don’t get it.”
She knew what Lucy meant. Kallia made her real living off the wealthy patrons she seduced. With her spells, potions, and various enchantments, she could ensnare any man she wanted–or needed. It took time, but witches had plenty of time. It was money they found harder to acquire.
“You wouldn’t. Now, run along home and tell my mother I’m fine.” She made shooing motions with her hands.
Lucy put a hand on her hip and leaned her other hip on the counter. “Not so fast. Auntie Gert’s concerned about you all alone in the human city. She bade me stay a couple days, get a feel for how your life is going.”
Horror rose up, clenching Kallia’s stomach and threatening to overtake her throat. She raised a hand to her neck, stopping the scream. She had a rendezvous that evening with her latest paramour, a meeting in which he’d commit serious time and money to her. But only if Lucy’s counter influences didn’t ruin it.
“No. Absolutely not! I’ve got important business. Go home now and tell Mother I’m fine. Or, better yet, take a few days at the beach–I’ll book everything for you–then go back and report that all’s well.” Sweat beaded her brow, and when she licked her lip, Kallia tasted salt. She brushed her skirt smooth, found the fabric unravelling in three spots. A tiny hole formed as her fingernail caught the loose thread. Her fingernail tore, as well. She tasted fear, sour and metallic, in her mouth.
“No can do.” Lucy raised her right arm, shoved her hand forward, palm upward, and displayed her inner wrist. A glowing gold-green aura, visible only to witchcraft-trained eyes, encircled her cousin’s slender wrist like a bangle. A truth-binding. Damn and double-damn!
“And,” her cousin continued, “I already touched you, so I’m locked on to you for the duration.”
“You deceitful witch!” The words burst from her before Kallia could stop them. She saw her world falling apart, all because her cousin wouldn’t–couldn’t–leave.
Lucy smiled. All her soft country charms faded away, leaving a stillness that spoke of something far older than the thirty-five years of her features. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said, her words soft.
Kallia looked away. She lifted a hand and rubbed her aching left temple. Lucy was no country bumpkin, no more than Kallia was a conniving New York widow. There was no sense in provoking her. Anger would do neither of them any good.
But she needed this client. Money couldn’t be charmed or faked with witchcraft. It had its own magic, and that mortal magic resisted a witch’s powers. It took serious work for a witch to ensorcel it away from rich humans. In the modern world, a witch needing money went with the territory. Her boutique would help, once it was fully funded. That’s where John Lorass came in as her latest wealthy patron.
She sighed. There was no way around either her meeting or her cousin.
“Well, if you’ve got to stay, let’s at least get you dressed for the city.”
Lucy’s smooth face clouded. Her eyebrows pinched. “What do you mean?” Kallia noted the slight tremble in her voice with great pleasure.
Two well-dressed women strode into the lobby of the hotel. Kallia, taller and leaner, was elegantly dressed in a long-sleeved and almost backless navy dress. Lucy, a touch shorter and a touch rounder, tottered on her heels, and her hand tugged at the conservative neckline of her forest green velvet dress. Both women had wild clouds of hair that haloed their heads. People turned to watch them pass.
As they reached the bar, Kallia indicated a stool with a motion of her hand. “You sit here. You’ll be able to see me the whole time.” She pointed to a table through the arched window against the left wall. “But you just might be far enough away to not fizzle my enchantments.” She frowned as her reflection showed her altered hair, her slightly rumpled and now eggplant-colored dress. “Any more, I mean.”
Lucy nodded and sat. Kallia took herself to the restaurant, greeted the maitre d’, and nodded through the window at Lucy as she slid into the seat held for her. She ignored the sensation of eyes upon her, a feeling like snakes crawling along her arms. She concentrated on her beguiling scent, which she’d created specifically for this man, this night. She concentrated the essences, made them strong to withstand the countering effects of her cousin a mere room away.
“Kallia, you look … lovely.”
At the deep voice, she gazed up into the gray eyes of her soon-to-be conquest and relaxed the tightened muscles of her neck and shoulders. Grace and beauty, she reminded herself as she smiled up at him, showing just the slightest bit of white teeth against her pale bronze skin.
He leaned in and kissed her cheek, whispering in a shocked tone, “What did you do to your hair?” He got a good whiff of her beguiling scent, and she heard his soft intake of breath before he drew back and seated himself. She hoped it would be enough.
“Do you like it? I felt a little wild.” She chuckled. “I’ll change it back soon.”
He assessed her, then leaned back, displaying the silver at his temples and the gold on his wrist in one easy motion. “On you, Kallia, anything looks good.” He lowered his voice as he met her gaze. “Nothing would look even better, I think.” His gaze wandered down her body, and Kallia wove her charms tight about him. She allowed a soft smile to grace her features, feeling the warm glow of success–until she noticed his slight frown.
She looked down. Now her dress was a most peculiar shade of deep violet. She lifted the menu, hiding her clothes, and in a perky voice not her own said, “Shall we order? I’m starving.”
Somehow they got through the meal without Kallia spilling anything on herself or her dinner partner. She breathed a sigh of relief. Only a few more hours to go, and she would have the deal behind her, her boutique secure before her. Then she could unravel John Lorass from her life.
One step at a time, she reminded herself. You’re not through with him yet.
“Thank you for that wonderful meal.” Kallia blotted her mouth with the napkin. As she lowered it, she caught John staring.
“See something you like?” she teased.
“Dessert,” he said, a frown pulling the edges of his mouth into a thin line. She quirked an eyebrow at his non-sequiteur, but he ignored her. Instead he read the menu provided by the ever-efficient waiter. Kallia gave the man a chilly smile and took one as well.
As she pretended to read, she surveyed her charms. They were frayed and loose, almost dangling. Damn Lucy! She’d have to risk using the potion she’d brought as back-up. She hesitated, biting her lip. If it backfired ….
Across the room, Mrs. Gupta entered with a man, presumably her husband. The woman’s eyes widened when she saw Kallia. She gave a nod of acknowledgment and a triumphant smile as her hand tightened on her husband’s arm.
That was enough for Kallia. With a smooth motion, she shook a tiny vial from her sleeve into her hand and pulled the cork. She reached for his glass. “Let me refill your water for you,” she said. He gave a non committal shrug. She lifted the glass with her left hand, holding it by the rim. While pouring water from the pitcher with her right hand, she emptied the vessel at her sleeve with a flick of her left wrist.
This love potion would take only hours to work, since it was a triple-strength batch. He just had to drink the entire glass of water. If he didn’t drink it all, the potion would have no effect.
She refused to stare at the glass, but willed him to drink. He reached out, lifted the glass and sipped, then replaced it on the table.
A terrible stench rose up around her. Kallia resisted the urge to wrinkle her nose. John gaped at her as she placed the odor: fart.
A shadow fell across their table. “Excuse me. Kallia, would you come to the ladies’ room, please?”
Lucy whirled, practically stomping through the tables to the far wall. Kallia murmured a quick word and fled, struggling with fury at Lucy for causing the stink and gratitude for letting her escape the mortification.
The door swished shut and Lucy whirled on her. “What are you doing over there? You’re falling all over that man. I thought you said this was business!” In her wrath, Lucy’s neat clothes loosened. Her hem and necklines shrank, displaying more of her heaving anger.
“It is business,” Kallia hissed. The door behind her started to open, and she barred it with a flick of her hand. “I need his money to save my boutique, he needs a glamorous woman on his arm. And in his bed. That’s business.”
“That’s not business, that’s prostitution!” Lucy’s exclamation echoed around the room, causing both of them to jump. Lucy waved her hand this time, silencing the room about them, while Kallia recovered from the mental slap.
“Yes,” she said at last. “The oldest business in the world.” A tired smile etched lines on to her face, and she ran a hand through her wild hair, clucking as it tangled. “But I need to save my boutique so it can be a real business. This man can do that for me, so I’ll do whatever it takes.” The ancient being beneath her facade roused, and her tone changed, became deeper and implacable as stone. “Don’t get in my way. I will have this. I deserve to be a respectable businesswoman.”
She turned and, breaking the spell holding it closed, walked out the door. As she walked, she calmed and groomed herself. By the time she seated herself across from John Lorass, she appeared serene.
“Sorry.” She glanced at his glass, next to which rested his hand. Still only a small sip was missing. She wove a fast, loose charm to make him thirsty and thrust it upon him as she reached out and took his wrist in her hand. With a smile, she said, “Women’s business.”
“You knew that woman?” he asked, withdrawing his hand to take another sip from his glass.
“Yes,” answered Lucy, standing beside their table once more. John looked up at Lucy, then back to Kallia.
“John Lorass, my cousin, Lucy Magian. Lucy, John Lorass.”
John stood. Kallia seethed as he set the glass down to do so. So close! She scented the money on him, smelled the security he offered. Only to have Lucy ruin it all again.
Lucy dragged over an empty chair from the next table and sat down. John looked stunned, then sat back down and smiled pleasantly, artificially, first at Lucy and then at Kallia. “I didn’t know you had any cousins, Kallia. I do see the resemblance. And now I know why you changed your hair.” He shot her a mocking smile.
She replied with a pained one of her own. It was sinking fast. Her charms unravelled from him, snapping and breaking free in proximity to Lucy. She gritted her teeth.
Lucy spoke. “Mr. Lorass, may I call you John?” She didn’t wait for his permission, just went on with a nod. “John. Now, understand me. I love my cousin. She’s a great woman, I’m sure you’ve noticed that. Beautiful, successful. I’d do almost anything to help her out.” Lucy leaned forward, intent on the businessman’s face. With her newly lowered neckline, her bosom threatened to overflow.
John rocked back in his chair, a slow smile spreading over his face. “Miss Magian, is that a proposition?”
Lucy shot backwards. “What? No!” She lowered her voice, leaning forward again. This time, her decolletage was properly hidden. “What I mean is, you should seriously consider my cousin’s business as a good investment. She started out a country bumpkin like me–oh, don’t look so shocked, I know what I am–and she’s managed to turn herself into the stunning creature you see now. That took hard work. And everyone knows she’s had no help from the family back home.” Lucy snorted and kept talking. John listened.
Kallia sunk down into her chair, mortified. Her dress transformed into a garish purple, and the slit at her knee sliced up to unwholesome heights. She looked like the cheap prostitute Lucy had accused her of being. She felt like one now, and the world got to see it. Her business was finished after this. She buried her face in her hands, aware that she was creating a spectacle, aware of Mrs. Gupta across the room.
Mrs Gupta. The woman would panic. Kallia straightened her spine, forced her charms back into place against the contrary influence of Lucy’s charms. She inspected her clothes, adjusted them back into her usual elegant attire.
“Is this true, Kallia?” John’s voice snapped her to attention. They were both looking at her, waiting for her reply.
“Uh, sorry. What was that?” She simpered at him and felt his disapproval like a wall of cold.
Lucy broke the uneasy quiet with a small laugh. “I’m afraid my presence always throws Kallia off. I show up unannounced and, well, play havoc with her organized life. Like what I did to her hair.”
For a moment, Kallia’s gaze locked with Lucy’s. She saw her cousin’s honest apology, along with something else. Something hard to define. Kallia peered deeply and found … respect. For all her hard work. For doing things on her own. For being herself.
She yanked her head away, then remembered her situation and tossed off a shaky laugh. “Yes, she does have that effect on me. As you can see.”
John lifted his glass of water to his lips, took a drink, and replaced the glass on the table. Her eyes clung to the water: it was half gone.
“Lucy said you have a business proposition for me. Is this true?” His jaw was hard, but his mouth wasn’t set. She wasn’t through, not yet. A chance remained yet, if she was willing to try it. Something different.
“Well, yes. I do.” She explained her boutique, the custom scents she blended, the cosmetics she created for each individual. How the confidence she created on their outsides renewed her customers’ inner confidence like magic. He listened to her words, half enraptured by the combined charms of the cousins working for the same goal. But his questions regarding money were hard, blunt. Kallia answered them just as bluntly, giving him the figures and hard data on her sales, as well as on her expected growth. She laid out her entire business plan at that table, reducing her shop to its essence, as she would any magical potion.
When she was done, John propped his chin on one fist and regarded her. “And here I thought you were looking for a sugar-daddy,” he said, crow’s feet appearing at the corners of his eyes as he smiled. It was the first time she’d seen that. His real smile.
“I had to catch your interest so you’d listen.”
He nodded, and his smile widened. “I’m glad you did.”
“So you’ll back my business?”
“It’s a splendid idea, and you’ve got good numbers to back it.” He glanced at Lucy. “I love when women support each other. Makes a nice change. So … yes.”
He reached a hand for his water. Kallia intercepted him, grabbed his glass, and raised it up. “A toast,” she said, “to a new relationship.”
“Here, here,” agreed Lucy, lifting the other from the table and clacking it loudly against Kallia’s. “May it never be doubted that the women in this family know enough to stick together.”
With a smile, Kallia drained the glass. Honest water never tasted so good.
BIO: M. E. Garber grew up reading about hobbits, space-travel, and dragons, so it’s no wonder that she now enjoys writing speculative fiction, and dreams of traveling the world(s). She used to live near the home of Duck Tape. Now she lives near the home of Nylabone. She’s a 2013 graduate of the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop, and is a member of the Codex Writers’ Workshop. You can find her blog at: http://megarber.wordpress.com