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Iris felt her heart rate double. Stupid! She was so stupid. She'd dropped the illusion on Jaq's appearance when the three of them were alone in the car and hadn't put it back up. God, how could she have forgotten?
The man was slowing the station wagon. She focused on him. You don't want to do that, she thought at him. You want to keep driving.
The driver's brow furrowed in confusion, but he sped back up.
You don't even want to think about what you just heard. You want to get us to our destination. And, in desperation: And you don't want to listen to country music anymore.
The man seemed uneasy, but he kept driving and didn't say anything more. He didn't turn the radio back on either. They went on in silence for an eternity. Finally, he dropped them off at the edge of the road the witches lived on. The three got out, thanked him for the ride, and Iris made him want to forget he'd even seen them, but she wasn't sure how long that would hold once he was out of her presence.
Then they were alone.
"How far back is the house?" Billy asked Jaq.
"Maybe a half a mile," said Jaq.
They walked briskly, until Billy and Iris, smokers, began to pant. They slowed.
"How do the people on the news know about Iris?" Billy wanted to know. "They said her name. How could they know that?"
"Don't know," said Iris. "But it's bad." She'd been so concerned with keeping the driver under control, she hadn't had time to contemplate the implications of what they'd heard on the news.
"That's bad?" said Jaq. "That guy recognized me."
"Your face was all over the TV," said Billy.
"Iris was supposed—"
"I fucked up," Iris said. "I know. I'm sorry."
"How could you forget that?"
"The car, and I was sleeping, and then I woke up . . . I'm sorry."
"Cut her some slack," said Billy.
"Magic Management has a license to kill me," Jaq said. "I don't think slack is in order."
"They're after all of us now, okay?" said Billy. "So we're all in the same boat."
"If you had just planned a little—" Jaq began.
Billy cut her off. "Did you forget the human race is in danger? I had to act fast."
"You could have just asked her," said Iris. "You didn't have to break her out."
"That would make you happier, wouldn't it?" Jaq asked Iris. "If I was still in jail? You'd be ecstatic."
"Well, it would make things a helluvalot simpler. The pixie police wouldn't be after us," said Iris. "Besides, you don't seemed too thrilled about it yourself. You've never said so much as 'thank you' to Billy."
"Thank Billy? For getting me a court order execution? Oh, yeah, that's real thoughtful."
"What can I say?" said Billy. "They were all out of engagement rings." He paused. "Hey, speaking of engagement rings, what the hell happened to the one I gave you?"
It was true. Jaq wasn't wearing an engagement ring. Iris had just assumed that she hadn't been allowed to wear it in jail.
"I sold it for lawyer fees," said Jaq.
"You did what?"
"You were gone. I was broke. My parents were broke. What was I supposed to do?"
"I don’t know. Why didn't you ever call me?"
"I was in jail, you asshole."
"Yeah, we know," said Iris. "It's all you ever talk about. Poor Jaq. She was in jail. Now she's free, but the pixie police are trying to kill her. She's got it so bad, and it's all everyone else's fault."
"Shut up," Jaq snarled.
"I don't have to—"
"I mean it," said Jaq. "Both of you. We can't be like this in front of the witches. They're very . . . strict. They'll expect us to be respectful. So however we feel about each other, we'd better just shut up about it for now."
Iris shrugged. "Fine." It was weird the way Billy and Jaq were arguing. It didn't quite sound like a lover's quarrel. Was there trouble in paradise?
"That ring was a family heirloom," said Billy.
"You liar. You bought that ring," said Jaq.
"How do you know that?" said Billy.
"I showed it to you at the store."
They kept walking.
Eventually, the witches' house came into view, a massive mansion that loomed over the road. It sat high on a hill and was two stories, with a veranda for each story. It reminded Iris of old houses in the south—like in Gone With the Wind. Plantations, that's what they were called. She knew they weren't far enough south for cotton. As they started up the path to the house, she wondered who had owned the house before the witches. It was huge. Far too big for a family. She bet the thing had like ten bedrooms. Maybe it even had an old servants' quarters. It was big enough to be a small hotel.
A woman in a long, hooded, crimson robe met them on the veranda. She bowed her head in greeting to Jaq. "Sister Jaqueline."
Jaq bowed her head in return. "Sister Lyssa."
"We were worried. We expected you much earlier."
"We took a wrong turn," said Jaq. "And we had car trouble."
"I noticed you are on foot."
"We welcome you. You and your female companion must come inside at once. The man, of course, will have to be purified."
"What?!" said Billy.
"Billy, please," said Jaq.
"What the fuck does she mean by purified?" he said.
Sister Lyssa smiled at Billy. "It's a simple ritual. It doesn't take too long."
"Sorry Billy," said Iris.
She and Jaq were ushered inside, where Sister Maureen greeted them and gave them crimson robes to wear. Sister Lyssa stayed outside to purify Billy.
"Because of the late hour," said Sister Maureen, "most of the order is asleep. But Mother Constance is waiting for you in the reception room. Follow me."
She led them through the hallway, which was dimly lit by candles and covered in medieval tapestries, to a large room. It contained a long rectangular table. At the head sat a woman in another crimson robe. Hers was embroidered with gold thread. Iris felt like she'd just stepped into a Renaissance Fair.
The woman stood and bowed her head. "Sister Jaqueline," she said.
Jaq followed suit. "Mother Constance."
Unsure of what to do, Iris similarly bowed her head.
Mother Constance gestured to the two chairs closest to her at the table. "Please sit," she said.
Jaq and Iris did as they were told. Mother Constance sat as well.
"It's good to have you back, Jaqueline," said Mother Constance. "Although, I must admit, I was surprised to hear you were bringing guests."
Jaq shrugged. She nonchalantly inspected her fingernails. "I was surprised to hear you'd moved the coven to this Godforsaken place and ordered all the members under one roof." There was an undercurrent of malice in Jaq's tone.
Mother Constance was clearly not used to being addressed that way. "I know you opposed my succession of Mother Lucy as head of the coven. I had thought that, since you came to me for help, we'd put all of that behind us."
"I am here for help," said Jaq, "and so are my guests. We need information from the coven, and then we'll be on our way."
Mother Constance raised her eyebrows. "So you are not back to stay?"
"Well," said Jaq, "the world's kind of in danger. I thought I'd help take care of that first."
For the first time, Iris found herself really liking Jaq. The way she talked back to the head witch was classic.
"The world's in danger? Really?" Mother Constance yawned. "It's late. There will be plenty of time to talk about all of that tomorrow. I'll have Maureen show you to your rooms."
"What about Billy?" said Jaq.
"Ah, yes. The man." She said "the man" like she was saying "the dog."
Billy had been led behind the house to a shallow pool, lined with smooth stones. Despite his intense protests, Sister Lyssa had managed to get his clothes off, and now he sat Indian style in the pool, while Lyssa poured water over his head and chanted in Latin. He was cold.
He'd given up swearing at her. She didn't pay any attention to it. He would have taken off if he hadn't been miles from his car. Jaq had mentioned the witches didn't take well to ghouls. He'd had no idea they weren't keen on men either. Sister Lyssa stopped chanting and helped him to his feet. She took a pouch from inside her cloak and began smearing its contents onto his skin.
"What the hell is this?" Billy asked.
"It will help curb your base, masculine instincts," she replied.
"What does that mean?"
Sister Lyssa didn't answer. She gave him a long brown robe to put on and led him into the mansion. They walked through the dark halls and up a set of narrow steps. He could hear Jaq's voice coming down the hall.
"Tell me where he is. I'm not going to sleep until I make sure he's okay."
They rounded a corner, and there were Jaq, Iris, and another hooded woman.
"I'm here," he said.
Jaq noticed him. "Oh good. I didn't know where you were."
The hooded woman said, "We forbid, however, that you share a bed with him under this roof."
"We're not together anymore," Jaq snapped.
"You're not?" said Iris.
Billy guessed he hadn't told Iris that he and Jaq were no longer engaged.
After making sure everyone was okay, Sister Lyssa and the other witch left. Jaq ushered Billy and Iris into her room, a small, stark space containing a single bed, a desk, a chair, and a bureau with a water basin on it. The house didn't have electricity or running water, so Jaq lit some candles. Billy settled on the floor. He wasn't wearing anything under his robe, and it felt odd.
"Thanks for the heads up about the purification," he said.
"I didn't know they were going to do that," said Jaq. "We never used to purify men except if they were participating in a ritual gathering."
"So what's that stuff she put on me?"
"It'll keep you from having an erection for like 48 hours. It's really harmless. Don't worry."
"Harmless? I've been fucking violated—"
"Shut up," said Jaq. "It's over. There's nothing you can do about it. I wanted to talk to you guys. That's why I brought us in here. So, please focus."
"You know," said Billy, "sometimes, you are a real bitch. How would you like it if—"
"Billy," said Iris. "Let's listen to what she has to say."
Iris was taking Jaq's side now? What the hell had happened during his purification, anyway? He sighed, but he didn't say anything else.
"Okay," said Jaq, "the coven has changed since I was part of it. It was never this weird. Billy, you remember. I wasn't this weird."
"Anyway," said Jaq, "I just think we have to be careful. Constance is really big on the old ways, and that means that the witches are really strict. Billy, don't cause trouble. Men are considered a distraction to the pursuit of magic and probably aren't usually allowed in here. And Iris, you be careful too. If they find out what you are, they'll kill you."
Iris nodded. "I'll be careful."
"Good," said Jaq. "Mother Constance may not allow you two to attend the inquiry tomorrow, when I ask the coven for the location of the court. If she does allow you in, you are to be silent. That means you don't speak, Billy."
God. She didn't have to talk to him like that. "What if someone asks me a question?"
"Answer them. But don’t . . . just be polite. They won't ask you anything, anyway." Jaq sighed. "When I heard that Constance had taken over the coven and moved it down here, I expected things to change a little, but I didn't expect this."
"What was it like before?" asked Iris.
"Well, for one thing we didn't all live in a huge house together. And we were allowed to have running water and electricity. Constance always lived like this, but no one else did. Mother Lucy never forced anyone to follow certain teachings. She said that each witch had her own path to follow."
"What happened to her?" asked Iris.
"She was executed by the pixie police. She used to use her illusions to help people who were terminally ill. She made them feel as if they weren't in pain anymore. One of the family members of a guy with cancer ratted her out."
"That's horrible," said Iris.
Jaq nodded. "I miss her. The coven isn't the same without her."
They were all quiet for a while, until the quietness started to get to Billy. "So I don't get to sleep with anyone? Even though I'm neutered?"
The next morning Jaq attended the first portion of the inquiry. Mother Constance and the coven council (the three most high ranking witches) wanted to interview her alone. Then Billy and Iris would be brought in so that the council could interview them.
Jaq was escorted to the council room, a large room in the front of the house that caught the morning sunlight in its tall windows. Mother Constance and the council sat with their back to the windows in straight back chairs. Jaq sat facing them, squinting in the bright sun.
Mother Constance led them in the opening incantation, admonishing the council to use their wisdom as guide to the inquirer. Together, they spoke the words to abolish distraction and one by one, the windows winked into darkness. Each witch, Jaq included, glowed. The chairs disappeared. The room disappeared. The witches sat in darkness, and they themselves were they only light.
"Sister Jaqueline," Constance said. "We have called you here alone this morning to discuss your development both magically and personally. After our discussion on this matter has been concluded, we will hear your inquiry, and we will admit your guests into the discussion."
Jaq bowed her head in understanding and consent.
"We are all aware of Jaqueline's situation, are we not?" Mother Constance asked of the council members.
"Her current situation?" asked Sister Maureen.
Constance nodded. "And her previous one."
"I'm not clear on the current situation," said Maureen. "She is traveling with a man was engaged to, but she claims they are no longer involved."
"Is this true?" Constance asked Jaq.
"Yes," said Jaq.
"Would you care to explain?"
"If it's agreeable to the council, my reasons for traveling with Billy will come to light in my inquiry, and the explanation can be left for then," said Jaq.
"Very well," said Constance. "I must say that I am pleased to learn that your entanglement with the man is over. You have always been easily distracted. It appears you are learning some discipline. We had hoped that prison might have that effect on you."
Jaq didn't speak, but she drew her mouth into a hard line.
"You may have wondered," said Sister Lyssa, "why the coven did not come to get you out of jail. It was within our power to free you. Mother Lucy felt that it would be better for your personal growth to remain there."
"No way," said Jaq.
"You don't believe Sister Lyssa?" asked Constance.
"It's just that Mother Lucy—"
"—was very fond of you, yes," said Mother Constance. "But she also recognized that some of your decisions were quite destructive and she wanted you to learn that."
"And we think that you have," said Sister Jennifer. "But we are concerned that you do not plan to return to the coven. Mother Constance informed us that you intend to leave after your inquiry."
"We have always valued your presence and your power," said Sister Lyssa, "but we must remind you that the resources of the coven are not available to those outside it."
"You come to us for assistance," said Sister Maureen, "yet you shun us."
When Jaq didn't say anything, Constance prompted her.
Jaq took a deep breath. "When I spoke to you on the phone, I told you that all I need was a small amount of information," she said. "It was at your insistence that I came here. You wouldn't answer my question over the phone."
"The information may be small, but you need us to supply it," said Mother Constance. "That is why you are here and not seeking it elsewhere."
"It comes to this," said Mother Constance. "We cannot give you the information if you are not part of the coven. If you do not stay here with us, we cannot help you."
"When the council hears the details of my inquiry, they will understand why I cannot stay," countered Jaq.
"If we were more sure of you, we might accept your reasoning. But you have proved to be reckless and rebellious. You do not show proper respect, and you are not witch enough to be excused for it. Allowances are made for powerful witches, witches who give to the coven. You only wish to take, and that is all you have ever done."
"If I don't get the information," said Jaq, "the human race will be—"
"Please," said Sister Maureen, "we are not discussing your inquiry at this time."
Jaq sighed. "Are you saying that you won't even hear my inquiry if I don't stay?"
"Yes," said Mother Constance.
"Then your assistance is worth nothing," said Jaq.
"If you give me this information, but I'm prevented from using it by being here, then the information is useless," Jaq said.
"Your guests would have the information as well," said Constance. "And they would not be prevented from leaving."
"And this is the only way you'll hear my inquiry?"
"Yes," said Mother Constance.
"I'd like to confer with my guests," said Jaq.
Constance shook her head. "This isn't a decision that has much to do with them. It's a personal decision. It's about you, Jaqueline."
"But you've kind of got me painted into a corner here," said Jaq.
The council did not respond.
There was silence. The witches glimmered in the darkness. The council watched Jaq. Jaq looked at the council.
"Okay," she said. "Okay I'll do it. I'll stay."
Mother Constance nodded. She instructed Sister Jennifer to let Jaq's guests in. Jennifer got up and opened a door in the darkness. Sunlight streamed in, followed by Billy and Iris. The door closed. The light disappeared. The two were given seats behind Jaq. Sister Jennifer sat down too.
"Now Sister Jaqueline," said Mother Constance, "as a full member of the coven, the council is seated to hear your inquiry."
"I'm not really sure how to begin," Jaq said. "I guess to cut right to the chase, I'm asking for the location of the court of the daion queen."
No one said anything.
Finally, Sister Lyssa spoke up. "I have to say I'm a bit stunned. You made so much of the importance of this inquiry, and now we find out it's just for a power pilgrimage?"
"I don't want to go to the court to gather magic," said Jaq. "We need to make a request of the daion queen."
The members of the council laughed.
"The daion queen doesn't hear requests from humans," said Mother Constance.
"How do you know that?" said Jaq. "Have you ever heard of anyone trying?"
The council hadn't. Jaq plowed on, trying to explain the situation as best she could. There was more laughter. No matter what she said or how she said it, the witches couldn't seem to take her seriously.
Finally, Jaq threw her hands up. "Look. If there's event the slightest possibility that what I've said is going to happen, don't you think that we need to try and stop it?"
"I don't see why you haven't simply tipped off the pixie police," said Sister Maureen.
"Um," said Iris.
"Yes?" said Maureen.
"I did try," said Iris. "They thought I was a prank caller."
The council found that deliciously amusing, judging by their laughter.
When they quieted, Jaq said, "Are you going to grant the inquiry or not? Just tell us where the court is."
But at that moment, the door opened again. Sunlight poured in, and the illusion of the dark space began to crack. Light came in through the spaces, until the entire illusion shattered and they were sitting in a brightly lit room. Mother Constance was on her feet. Her voice was soft, but it had a harsh edge. "You were told not to enter. We were not to be disturbed. On that point, I was very clear."
The witch who had opened the door bowed her head. "Yes. I am sorry, but I have made a very important discovery."
"Couldn't it have waited?"
"I do not think so, Mother Constance."
"Well, then. Out with it."
"I was cleaning the rooms of the guests of Sister Jaqueline."
"Yes, Bunni, we are all aware of your chores. Please, tell us what was so important that you burst in on a council inquiry."
Bunni drew a plastic sandwich bag out of her robe. "This."