Atropa Belladonna smiled and brought herself to a seat between two bushes. With her naked feet dangling in the night air and her ivory mane she might have seemed as harmless and fragile as those terracotta dolls the Children of Men sold in one of San Marino’s shops.
Even concealed as she was, Artemisia’s chest still hurt, tugged by some invisible pressure. Behind her silhouette of skin and muscles and bones, her Hungerlight withdrew shyly into dark depths, as inconsequential as a candle before the dawn.
“We just had a Sabbath. One that did not last long, but was meaningful enough,” Atropa said.
“Yes,” Artemisia replied licking her lips. Could she lie? Try to? She pulled in another deep breath through her makeshift joint. If she did have the breath for stupid questions… “I think Dulcamara did say something about that.”
Atropa’s black eyes glinted. She seemed amused.
“She might. Last year we had some minor disruption. Along the Dominion’s border and especially in Florence. Precatoria was quite bothered by it. I believe something did reach your ears?”
What couldn’t? She had tea shops like this one along every major fault-line between Stravaganzas, places where Witch servants could come to find solace, an ear that did not try to listen, or a simple cup of tea. As they were wont to do, rumors did spread.
“Yes. Something about a failed ritual?” She wouldn’t have been caught dried in such human-level dross. Pretoria’s little adventure did speak for itself: she almost got eaten. Of course she knew a thing or two about the whole conundrum. For a couple days it even felt like Florence’s Stravaganza had been left to send for itself, so much that the murmurs along those faultiness, that no-Witch-land Artemisia guarded turned into a roar of salivating desires.
For a few days.
Then order had come back to the entirety of the Dominion, and Pretoria back on her stolen throne. At least for the time being.
Atropa, whose eyes did not leave her face, smiled a tiny bit wider.
“At least for the time being. Certain characters did try to get an undue advantage out of it, though; by letting her lips loose with Witches outside of the Dominion. A small twinge of anarchy that left me annoyed.” She lifted her filigree hand: air rippled, ripping itself apart like sundering a wound. A circle of golden dancing nights, like pearls of molten gold, cut through the night; from the swirling vortex something came out, a figure pulled from an inter-space Artemisia did not even want to ponder. The thing, the figure, fell at Atropa’s feet, wriggling, trying to scream, but each of the words escaping her mouth ended in a mute cry. Her dirty dark hair stuck to her body, she was covered from head to toe in bruises.
“Meet Genziana. Fifty-Seventh Germination. And until a couple hours ago, Witch of Trento. The Table Twenty just legislated about her new stature in life.”
The newcomer did not seem to notice them, nor the place she was in. She looked like a Child of Men in the throats of pain or delirium, clawing at her face. The rest of her slender body wiggled and writhed.
The wound in reality closed down.
“She’s already being punished. I poured her a couple of my tears.”
Artemisia gritted her teeth.
“I can see that. Can I ask what do I have to do with all this?”
“I was wondering if I couldn’t take advantage of your services. A small favor, so to say.”
Artemisia pulled in one final breath, consuming her joint in one go, holding the smoke in her mouth, trying to focus on its meaty taste, with volutes of heat going off behind her lips. Too bad on her it did not have the same effect as on the Children of Men.
When she breathed out, the smoke lingered about her, as if it was afraid to pass over the writhing Genziana or the silent Atropa Belladonna.
“Isn’t this… unusual, coming from you? I mean, I am used to more exemplary punishments. Like in Venice.”
Atropa shook her head, making her flowing mane dance.
“I don’t want to look bad in Melissa’s eyes.”
“I get it,” she replied, not getting it. “How is she by the way?”
“You’re kind to ask.” That gaze of blackness seemed to grow warmer as Atropa talked about her favorite topic. “We spent hours weaving crowns of flowers and then we danced around the fire for days upon days. Sometimes it feels like it can last forever.”
“That’s nice,” what other empty words she could string together to try and fill the growing silence? She found nothing.
And Atropa asked her for a favor.
She only had a couple more seconds before her hesitation turned into a refusal.
The punished Witch groaned without the ability to emit sounds. She writhed like a worm on a hook.
Artemisia threw the rest of the joint away.
“I am lucky to have a good Familiar. I would prefer not to drain her any more than necessary.”
“Adele, yes. She does look like a good girl. She’s kind.”
“How…” then she shook her head. One more stupid question, directed to Atropa Belladonna.
She crouched in front of the other Witch, lowering her hands towards her chest.
“Just a moment. I want her to feel it.”
A shiver of fear ran through her.
There it was. The Atropa she expected.
Gentiana blinked. She pulled her hands back from her eyes: they were a sheer, solid black, like carved in ink. A black goo flew from her irises, revealing their blue shade below. What looked like inky droplets of thick liquid fell on the floor, slithered up Atropa’s body and jumped into her pupils, disappearing inside the sea of nothingness that was her gaze.
She looked around, trying to get away from the two of them. Her lips trembled when she saw Atropa, so she addressed her.
“A-Artemisia?” The betrayer croaked. “What are you doing here?” She pushed back, crawling on the floor. “A-Atropa, I…”
“Your punishment with me is over. Artemisia will take care of the rest.”
Genziana’s azure, trembling orbs turned towards her.
“Is this another of your games, Atropa?”
Artemisia couldn’t fault her.
A strange smile pulled her lips as she reached for the betrayer once again.
To the rest of the Dominion, she had never been anything but a harmless curiosity. A Witch who wasted her most-ancient Germination after infusions and tea cups. So weak and insignificant she did not even get a proper Stravaganza, not beyond the walls of her shops.
Yet another of Atropa Belladonna’s living trinkets, to whom it was allowed, out of some whim, to enjoy a slightly longer leash than others.
Her hand reached Genziana’s skin. Beneath it – she felt the hum-thrum of her Hungerlight, still shaken by the black nightmares Atropa’s tears threw her into, without knowing she was about to face yet another.
She did not understand.
Artemisia’s own Hungerlight jumped at the call, seeing such valuable prey at her mercy. Half-forgotten instincts rippled in her chest. They itched, scratched, reminding herself that old age did not, in fact, wet her appetite.
Pry her apart and prey, they whispered to her ears.
She closed her eyes, steeling hers. She was a mature Witch, not just an extension of her own Light. She’d go back to one more work day tomorrow, back to serving tea to her customers, back to conversations with her Familiar, ever-so-slightly drained after tonight. She’d go back to take care of her flowers and be content with observing the changing seasons and the always-same play the Children of Men set up right on her doorstep.
She opened her eyes again.
And insight the Witch she was touching, something listened and obeyed.
She withdrew her hand, rubbing her fingers together.
The other blinked, shaking her head.
“What did you…” she choked on her words. Her blue gaze rolled to her right hand. In the center of her palm a small but had appeared, golden and red.
Genziana couldn’t say anything else. She fell on her side, thrashing her legs as her back arched, sounding like creaking wood. More flowers and roots spread from her open mouth, running down her bark-skin. One my one, her teeth turned into buds, her lips into leaves.
Night air smelled like rose petals rubbed together. She felt it grow even as the pulsations of her ebbing Light grew weaker as she bloomed herself out. Flash after flash, it grew dim.
Genziana turned one last blue look at her – panic and fear and pain, always the same mixture. Her orbits popped in a burst of roots that spread towards the sky.
What used to be a Witch twisted upon itself.
And now only plant remained, turning towards the sky, twin branches reaching out, as if begging for help or mercy or release. A thousand minuscule golden petals bowed to the wind.
Artemisia walked away, picking up one of her empty vases, lining it up with fresh and rich soil and putting the new plant inside it. She brushed her fingers against the leaves of her new addition.
Still fresh. Would need water soon as it was summer, but that was it.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“I suppose it’s just about enough for tonight. Thanks for your enduring support.”
“Heh,” Artemisia replied, sitting with her back against the rail. Her hand lingered on the nearest plant. What was it? Ah, ricin.
She picked up a couple leaves and put them between her lips. Maybe this would be enough to give her enough of a kick.
Atropa was still looking at her, bemused, like a small bird tilting its head to get a better look.
Artemisia bit into the ricin leaves. Her request had not been unusual, but for a betrayed like Genziana used to be… it wasn’t really her style. Something eluded her grasp.
She opened her mouth.
Closed it again.
And opened it again.
“I’d like to ask you something.”
“Anything you wish.”
“Wasn’t this a little too quick? I remember you being much more… creative.”
Her mind went back to Venice. To the last Witchen War and the still-writhing corpse of Valeriana.
“I wanted to verify something.”
What? But the question remained in her throat, stuck like a thorn.
Adele was not the only one benefitting from ignorance.
Mind your business, live a hundred years, the Children of Men said. A wise line, just as true for her own kind. Maybe even more.
Atropa flowed down from her chair. She folded her hands, hinting at a bow.
“I would love to stay for longer, but I did leave Melissa all alone. Maybe I will come back another time to taste one of your famous infusions.” Once more, that black gaze rippled with a different emotion Artemisia couldn’t place. Bemusement? Affection? She couldn’t say. “I truly value our friendship, Artemisia. I hope you shall keep it in mind, when the time comes.”
She took a step back – air rippled once again in a flash of twisted light – and she was no more.
Artemisia was now alone on the rooftop, munching on ricin, surrounded by the night sky, her motionless garden and her own doubts.
Sager-brush, hawthorne, rows upon rows of roses bending under the weight of their own flowers. Rosemary and thymus. And between them, tall bushes and willows, stretching their twisted, elongated branched towards the empty sky, sometimes reaching for each other, like in prayer.
Who knew to whom, who knew what for.
Author’s Notes: and here we are, at the end of this shorter piece. I wanted to share some of my characters from my Hungerlight universe. I hope you liked it! Thanks for reading.