“Tea, wax, or bones?” I asked, waiting for the answer I already knew she’d give. The girl chewed on her bottom lip while considering the three options. The smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks made her appear younger than she was, but her indecision was what truly showed her immaturity. She knew what I could read before stepping inside. She should’ve come inside knowing her choice.
The auburn hue of her hair was the same hue of the heap of loose tea leaves lying on the counter. Across the room, the kettle leaked steam. Loose, languid tendrils curled and entwined with one another. I could get lost in their silken dance if I stared long enough, so I snapped my eyes back to her to refocus.
The water wasn’t heating for her. It warmed for the boy in the woods. He stood behind my cabin, clinging to the rough bark of a tree, desperately trying to talk himself into knocking on my door and asking me to read his fate, and berating himself for considering leaving before gathering it.
Eventually, he would garner enough gumption to approach and ask me for the favor he coveted, but not before witnessing the girl’s hasty exit. He would emerge from the woods as she left through the back door, because it would guarantee that his reputation would be kept safe. The girl would guard his secret so that he wouldn’t expose hers. And he would choose a tea leaf reading because he feared the color of candle that might choose him and that the bones might tell him something he wasn’t prepared to hear; guide him where he was yet afraid to step.
He was a boy of calculated risks, who wrestled with intense self-doubt. A boy who would rather cling to a tree than let go.
The girl inched farther into the room as if she was easing into a lake of cold water. There wasn’t much to see in the small, open space. A couch to her left. A simple, square table and chairs, a few cabinets, countertops littered with precious stones and potted herbs, the hearth with its flickering fire, and the thicker slivers of steam pouring from the kettle.
Her pale, amber eyes caught on the casting cloth stretched over the table’s top. She noticed the wishbones piled high in a silver bowl, desperately wishing she weren’t so weak. I couldn’t hear her words in my head, but followed the way her delicate features revealed a swell of emotions that built and crashed over her countenance.
“Fate doesn’t favor the weak,” I warned the girl as she shifted her weight back and forth, worrying her fingers. Her eyes met mine. In their depths swam both guilt and confusion. I elaborated for her. “You shouldn’t fear the bones. They can reveal things the wax and leaves cannot.”
She was a girl who wouldn’t take advice even when it was in her best interest, a girl who gave fear dominion over her decisions.
Her eyes flicked to a nearby shelf and the colorless candles it held. She refused to look away from the pale tapers, afraid the bones would call out to her again. They always did.
“I choose wax, please,” she said, her voice quivering. The little mouse was terrified, not of the tea or wax, or even the bones… but of me.
I gave her a smile to put her at ease, all too aware that it might do the opposite, and moved to the shelf, gathering the mound of slender tapers and bringing them over to the table. “Would you care to remove the cloth?”
She hesitated, but gently pinched the corners of the dark, silken square and pulled it from the wooden surface. I lay the tapers down, steadying them so none rolled off, then took the cloth from her. During the exchange, the tremble in her fingers rippled through the fabric into mine.
Her eyes flicked to the plate of wishbones again, then back to me. I wouldn’t offer them to her again. She had made her choice, and my time was as valuable as my reading. I wouldn’t waste it on indecision or fear.
I folded the dark casting cloth, tucked it into the wide pocket of my dress, and removed the bowl of bones from her sight. Tension oozed out of the girl’s muscles as soon as they were gone. I scooped a basket of mismatched candleholders from the shelves, handing it to her. “Place a taper in each and arrange them in a circle.”
She shifted her weight from her left foot to her right, then back again. “Which do I start with? They all look the same.”
“You’ll find they don’t feel the same. Hold each and place it where you feel it belongs. The pattern is yours to design.”
Her lips pinched together.
“Think about a question to which you’d like to know the answer. Focus on it and the feel of the taper in your hand, then place it. If you allow it, the wax will show you the answer in the pattern you make. Let me know when you’re satisfied with the circle. The colors will reveal themselves, and I will decipher them for you.”
She swallowed thickly and then picked up a taper, closing her fist around it and shutting her eyes for a brief moment before popping them open. She placed the first taper in the candleholder located at the twelve o’clock position. Slowly, she formed a circle. She couldn’t see past the opaque wax to the color lying beneath, but I knew each one by heart. Her arrangement surprised me. It contained jarring combinations of yellow and black, violet and green, orange and white. When she’d completed the circle, she glanced up expectantly.
“You’re satisfied?” I asked.
She looked over the circle she made and nodded. “This feels right.”
“I didn’t expect this from you,” I revealed, waving my hands over the sacred circle. The tapers lifted from their holders and began to spin around in the air. Their true colors absorbed into the white wax from the tip of each taper to its base. I expected to read her pattern, but again, she surprised me. Or rather, her fortune did. One candle in particular chose her, which was a rare gift.
Her eyes struggled to keep up as the tapers slowed, and she watched warily as a single candle left its position in the wheel and drifted into the center. The wax was the color of eggplant, or a deep and long-lasting bruise – an unfortunate fortune for any witch to garner, but a wise witch would heed the warning and might be able to change her fate…
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a warning.”
“Foresight is a gift of Fate. If you heed his warning, you can make choices to avoid a catastrophe.”
Her lips barely moved, but I saw them form a soundless ‘catastrophe’.
“What will happen to me?” she asked.
I whispered an incantation. Flame seared its wick, growing tall and flickering. Dark smoke drafted toward the ceiling. She watched the flame, the element and source of her power. The reflection of fire shone in her eyes. “Extinguish it,” I said softly.
She closed her eyes and the flame died instantly.
“Stay away from the border.”
“For how long?”
I quirked a brow. She shouldn’t be going there unaccompanied, anyway. “Why are you leaving without permission?”
The girl swallowed.
Gripping the taper, I read the lingering breath she’d blown onto the wick. “A boy in Twelve? You’ve been sneaking across for months…”
Her eyes widened. “Please, don’t tell the Priestess. I’ll be banished from the House.”
“The young man’s heart is as black as his words are sweet. He’s luring you into a web of lies. You should never see him again.”
Her lip began to quiver.
Oh, no. I could already feel the punch of emotions roiling through her. There was nothing I could do to stop a feeling as strong as love, but if I could get through to her, make her see that it was a love that had never been reciprocated… “Do you love him?”
“Yes,” she croaked.
“He does not love you.” A fat tear fell onto her cheek. She looked down at her shoes. Ashamed. “Deep down, you already know this.”
A second tear fell from her eye. This one splashed onto the tip of her leather boot.
“The occasional tryst might be overlooked, but you know that to be with anyone outside The Gallows means that you can never return. Without your House, your power would dwindle. Do you wish to lose your flame?”
She shook her head. She had to know that whatever fling she’d been having with the boy couldn’t last, but forbidden fruit was a temptation some couldn’t force themselves to turn away from.
I softened my voice, hoping she could see reason. “What about your life? Do you wish to have it snuffed out?”
The girl began to cry in earnest. She knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t lie to her, but the feelings she harbored for the malicious young man were as strong as his will to break her.
“I can see his will,” I revealed, “and its only purpose is to hurt you.” The truth often stung.
Her eyes snapped to mine. “He wouldn’t do that.”
“If you see him again, you will die by his hand.”
She shook her head and wiped her nose. “He would never hurt me.”
“It’s the truth. Now, you must make an important choice. The most urgent of your life. Will you heed my warning, or accept your fate?”
She pushed by me and flung open the back door. A loud slam rattled the walls. I almost chastised her for rudeness, but in her defense, her reading was rather shocking. Most of the time, I had a sliver of hope that the person I read for might change their fate, but I didn’t think she would.
If she went to him tonight as planned, this moment – and I – would be one of the last things she recalled before death claimed her.