Ivy, Angelica, Bay | Tor.com


When Hurston Hill is threatened by a suspiciously powerful urban development firm, Miss l’Abielle steps up to protect her community with the help of a mysterious orphaned girl in this charming follow-up to “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid,” featured on LeVar Burton Reads.


Trouble sits on the third stair below my door, slouching and ragged with her elbows on her knees. The wards on Mama’s car shimmer and tense, and on the rooftop five stories over my head, the bees stir from their drowsy, sun-drenched dreaming. A stranger, here, when no one has asked a thing of me since the priest and the undertaker came to bless Mama and take her away.

I open my purse and pluck out a short cord. I slip it into a loop, ready to knot with a tug, and then I push open the driver’s side door. The wards wrap over my shoulders as I leave the car and step around its long black nose. The ivy trained up the front bricks ripples, as if the house just let out a sigh of relief. I stop on the sidewalk and look trouble in the eye.

No tears on this one. All that feeling had been shed long ago, leaving nothing behind but wanting. Want pours from the young woman who rises to feet shod in dirty canvas sneakers. Want climbs on the trellis of long skinny legs in a man’s chinos. She snaps her fingers and squares her shoulders when she knows I’m looking. A belt with extra holes punched in it wraps around a middle that never feels full, blousing the hem of a stained cotton shirt. Want fills this woman to the frazzled halo of hairs worked loose from crooked cornrow braids.

I set steady feet on the sidewalk, armored in spells and mourning black. “How do you do,” I say, because it wouldn’t do to be impolite. “I see you have been waiting some time.”

“An hour,” the woman says. “It’s been an hour.”

“My apologies,” I say, though I’m not sorry for anything. “I had an engagement. I am Miss l’Abielle. What is your name?”

“Liv. Livvie. I’m Livia.” The woman’s hands flutter together, tangling so tight her knuckles go pale. “I need you to help me. I want a house. I need it. I—”

I lift my hand and stop her tongue. “My apologies once more. I am indisposed at the moment.”

“But I need it,” Livia insists, and I am not ready for this. There’s still crying to do and affairs to attend, and who is this woman to demand this now?

“There is a price to what we want,” I say. “This time, the price is too high. I am sorry. I have a luck charm. Take that instead.”

I open my purse again. A luck charm will do. She can’t have what she wants. I don’t know why, but she can’t. Shadows grow colder when I think about it.

“What price?” Livia asks. “Tell me.”

Oh, this girl wants so bad. She doesn’t know, doesn’t care; she can’t see the danger lurking all around her. A drop of pity splashes on my heart as I make my terrible words gentle.

“Your firstborn child.”

The air around us shivers. Something hears me set the price. Something sets it into stone, final and unmoving.

The want in Livia crashes into that price. It bubbles just behind her eyes, pressing harder and harder until it bursts into pain and frustration and a bolt of hot rage. She clamps her jaw shut and spins on the worn sole of one sneaker and walks away, fast, faster, running.

I watch until she’s so far down the block she fades into the horizon, and it’s only then that I let out the breath I’d drawn to cast a binding. I pull the spell knot apart and go inside to safety.


Lorraine’s still on paid leave for another week, so I cook my own supper and dust my way through the house. I don’t want her to come back to extra work. It keeps me busy too. It helps me forget for all the hours between coming home from the funeral and getting into bed. Mama’s suite is still shut up tight. I don’t know when I will open those doors again. I have the bedroom on the front of the third floor, with the curving bay windows framed by tendrils of ivy, and a stack of brand-new books.

Books help me forget that Mama’s gone, for a while. I sit with a story on my tented knees, breathing in fresh paper and printing ink as I read about the Bottom of Heaven. Neighbors snore in front of Johnny Carson with the sound turned down. The bees sleep. I turn a page and sit next to Shadrack on the curb with his shoes knotted tight, feeling his loneliness and grieving instead of mine. But then I look up, head tilting at a sound I only think I heard.

I listen past the walls and into the streets, my senses checking every streetlamp witched into the spells quilted over Mama’s domain.

Not Mama’s. It’s mine now. I remember, and my heart knots up tight.

But it’s quiet outside. I slip back into the pages and the house settles around me, warm and content as a sleep-laden sigh—

Until a knock makes the house jump with four sharp raps. I’m in my slippers before the echo leaves the air, my housecoat floating as I take the stairs down and around. I touch the spells on each newel post, gathering their magic before I reach the vestibule.

I open the door, and a little girl is there.

She stares at me with huge dark eyes, her cotton shirt dirty, her chinos all holes. She has a little suitcase frowzy with cabbage roses, something brown stained across the side.

“Mother said wait here,” she says, in a mouse-quiet, trembling voice. “She said to mind you until she comes back.”

The last word splinters in her throat, snapped by fear.

“Oh, child. Who is your mother?”

But I know, don’t I? I already know.

She looks at me, her eyebrows perplexed. “Mother.”

She’s ten, perhaps. Little and skinny and trying not to look behind her, because if she does, the monster will be there. No little girl should ever look like that.

I bend and put my hand on her shoulder. Bones poke at the hollow of my palm. But the touch makes a magic clamp around my wrist. The air shivers with a bargain sealing itself shut. It vibrates like a drum skin, like thunder.

I let go. It’s too late. I named the price and Livia gave it up, her wanting so strong it made fate bend.

My breath sighs out. I go still. No wind in the leaves, no purring traffic—that’s wrong. Something is


The streetlights wink out all down the street. The televisions go dark. My skin crawls, for something hot and greedy brushes against the skin of magic around my streets.

The little girl on my doorstep whimpers. Round eyes, open mouth, breathing in gulps that will drown her in terror. She drops the suitcase. It pops open, spilling out threadbare clothes and holey shoes.

The magic gropes at the wards, fumbling for a way in.

A scream claws its way out of the little girl’s throat. She backs into the iron railing that keeps her from falling off the steps.

I reach for her. She rushes into my arms. I drag us over the threshold and slam the first door, shuffling back through the vestibule and into the house. I swing the inner door shut with one slippered toe and crouch down to hold her.

The sticky-fingered spell is gone. I send my power out and let it spread along the web, but there’s nothing to find.

My heart is a stone as I hum in an abandoned girl’s ear. I rub her back.

“I’ve got you.” I rock her, lullaby slow. “You’re safe.”

But I don’t know where that magic went, or what it meant to do.


When she settles down enough, I talk softly in her ear. “I’m Miss l’Abielle. What’s your name?”

“Jael Brown.”

There’s a haystack worth of Browns in this city. “Where do you stay?”


“You don’t know the name of your street?”


“What about your school?”

“I never went.”

I barely stop myself from sucking my teeth. She’s too old to be kept home. “That’s all right. We’ll sort it out in the morning.”

Jael comes along up the steps past the piano, following me to where my childhood bedroom waits for someone to dream in it. She stares at a ruffle-laden bed and a flop-eared stuffed bunny resting on the chenille coverlet. I find a nightgown folded around lavender sachets. “Come along. You need washing.”

She waits silently while I pour herb oil and bubble bath in the steamy water. The suds rise past the top. I pull out a stool and settle. “Go on. When you’re ready I’ll wash your hair.”

I find a book on the wall shelf. I read to her about a girl who solves five dozen mysteries before she turns nineteen years old.

I was once the little girl in the hot water and soapsud clouds. I don’t remember Mama’s words so much as the feel of her voice ringing off the tiles. Reading like she did, I feel like she’s here, but she’s so far away, gone somewhere I can’t follow yet.

I’m partway into the second chapter when the splashing behind me subsides.

“Did you wash all of your toes?”

A quick splash, just to be sure. “Yes, ma’am.”

I sit behind the tub and rub olive oil shampoo over her scalp. She presses her fingers to her eyes when I pour water from a pewter jug to rinse the suds away. I have to work it in twice before the lather springs up the way I like it.

“There’s your nightgown. Dry off and come out.”

She comes barefoot to the bedroom. The ruffled hem floats inches above her broomstick ankles. I set her down in a white-painted chair and comb the snarls gently away, smoothing light oil over the length. It’s late by the time I finish.

She doesn’t say a word through the combing, stays silent while I braid her hair with quick fingers, weaving in protections—good luck, clear thinking—each section combed into the weaving with a different blessing. “There you are.”

I’ve plaited her hair in a four-strand crown tidy enough for church, and she turns her head, trying to see it all.

“Princess,” she whispers to herself.

“You can pick a dress in the morning. Into bed.”

She climbs into the narrow green bed and settles back into a nest of ruffled pillows. I draw the net curtain out of its tiebacks and drape it along the edges, veiling her from nightmares.

I’m at the foot of the bed when she speaks.

“Mother left me, didn’t she?”

I wait for my heart to finish breaking before I breathe again. It is a terrible thing to be left behind by your mother. It leaves a hole soul-deep to know she walked away, and you can’t help but wonder, again and again, if it’s because of something you did or something you are that made her set you aside. I can’t hug her. She won’t give me her tears, poor alone little thing.

But I can give her the truth. I nod, once, slow.

Her eyes slip shut and her head tilts back. She’s already learned the trick of stopping tears. She folds her hands in her lap and gazes at them as she resolutely does not cry. Then she sighs, tucks all that feeling carefully away, and nods.

“Good night, Miss l’Abielle.”

She pulls the chenille bedspread to her chin and I leave her alone in the streetlit dark.


Come morning, Jael sits at the gold-speckled table in the kitchen in one of my old puff-sleeved dresses, eating enough strawberry waffles for two grown-up women. I drink coffee and poke at a grapefruit glistening with honey. Jael cuts tidy little squares, swimming in golden butter and shiny red syrup, but she sets down her fork and picks up the bottle to pour out a little more.

“Isn’t it already sweet enough?”

“Sugar keeps the magic strong,” she says.

“What magic is that?” I ask, and her shoulders jump up. She shakes her head, still chewing.

“Mother always said it.”

She only has a handful of mother memories in her pocket. I won’t contradict this one. It’s not like she’s wrong, even if she doesn’t know it.

I dig out a cluster of grapefruit, tart and juicy with a streak of sweetness on it. I should have a waffle, but I’m too unsettled to eat much more, and that won’t stop until I check my streets.

“We’re going for a walk,” I tell her.

Jael walks beside me, frocked in mauve next to my black. She sneaks glances at her puffed-out skirts, stitched with a scattering of forget-me-nots. I loved that dress when I was her age. It lifts Jael’s chin to wear it.

I pick up a bag of lemon drops at the corner store and Cynthia Lewis smiles at the tidy little girl by my side. “And who is with you, Miss l’Abielle? And may she have a strawberry sucker?”

Jael shifts a little, emerging from behind me. “May I?”

“Go ahead. This is Jael Brown, and she’s staying with me at the house. Jael, this is Mrs. Cynthia. This is her corner store.”

Jael steps around me cautiously, but she dips her chin and curtsies as if she’s been waiting for the chance to try it. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“What a doll,” Cynthia praises. “What a little lady.”

I swap a quarter for the lemon drops. “How is the neighborhood?”

Cynthia drops it in an earthen jar beside the cash register. “Fine, Miss l’Abielle. Everyone is fine.”

There’s a gap between her words and her smile. I wait, watching her. She flicks a glance toward the back of the store, then back to me.

“Got an envelope from the city.” She settles back on a tall stool next to the cigarettes. “They’re coming to do an assessment.”

My fingertips tingle. “For taxes?”

“Safety.” Cynthia’s looking at the door to the back again.

“When they coming?”

“Says next week.”

“Come see me for tea,” I say. “Bring that letter.”

Her face melts with relief. “Thank you.”

I head for the door, touching the mark scratched into the jamb on my way out. I step out onto the concrete and into a patch of sunlight, waiting for Jael to come along. “Where did you learn to curtsy like that?”

Jael scoots up to walk beside me. “Mother said to always use my manners.”

I feel a little shame for my assumptions about Livia, made of ragged clothes and unkempt hair. Jael is a polite little thing, tidy and quieter than another child might be. “It’s well taught. Good manners will take you far.”

She nods absently, like someone who was waiting for a turn to speak. “What was that on the door?”

“What was what?”

“The thing you touched. The air got prickly.”

I lift an eyebrow at her. “Did it?”

“There’s another one right there.” She points unerringly at the mark next to Johnson’s Music Shop, where a few browsers walk their fingers along the tops of used records.

“They’re five-corner marks,” I tell her. “They’re for luck.”

“And when you touched Mrs. Cynthia’s, you gave her luck. Right?” She looks up at me, hopeful as the brightest student in the classroom.

She knows that, just by seeing it once. What has fate brought to my doorstep? “That’s right. Hush now; I need to listen.”

I halt on the corner of two main streets and listen to Hurston Hill. Shouts of children playing in our park. Jael watches with longing as other girls in bright skimpy shorts show off dance tricks on roller skates to big, brassy disco tunes.

I catch where she’s looking. “You want to play with them?”

“No,” she says. I want to be them, I hear beneath the quiet ache.

It’s a peaceful, pretty day, and the sun smiles down on all of it. A bee tumbles on the autumn breeze from the common garden where the Golden Horticultural League puts their hands in the dirt and grows good things from it. The worker-sister circles us, hovering around my head.

Jael stays very still. I listen.

This way, her wings whisper. Something wrong. Something wrong.

The worker-sister floats off to the left. I follow. Jael has to trot to keep up with me, and I slow down, for her sake.

“What did the bee tell you?” Jael asks.

This strange little child sees everything. “I’m still listening. How did you know she spoke to me?”

“You had on your listening face. And you weren’t scared.”

“The bees here are friends.”

Jael hops over a crack in the concrete. “How do you know the bee is a she?”

“In a hive, all the gatherers you see in the sky are sisters.”


“That’s right. The bees live up on the roof of the house. There’s a garden up there.”

“So the bees are yours?”

“Better to say that I am theirs.”

“And the bee came to tell you something? What did she tell you? Is it because of the five-corner marks?”

Ten-year-olds are made of questions. I squeeze her hand to let her know I heard her, but the worker-sister has flown off, and I’m following a hollow, dreadful hunch to a narrow brick house I know as the Colemans’.

George carried Mahalia Coleman over the threshold of this house two years ago. Mahalia had been to see Mama every month since, trying to catch a baby. But Mahalia needed more than teas and tinctures, and while science made a baby last summer, they’re not doing that for ordinary folks just yet.

Today, the house is empty. The Colemans are gone. I stare at that for a long breath. They left recently, from the way the walls still wait for their people to come back. But how did they go through packing up and moving without me hearing about it? Even in mourning, with no visitors and no gossip, the bees should have known.

I climb the stairs and cup my hands around my eyes, pressing against the window. Empty. Clean, too—the floors shine with freshly buffed wax. I imagine I can smell it.


I look back. Jael stands very still, her palm up, as the worker-sister lands on the round ball of her thumb. She looks up, her face wide with awe.

“She likes me.”

I smile for her. “So I see. Be very quiet and listen. Maybe she will tell you something.”

Jael looks very serious as she gives the bee her listening face. I step off the welcome mat. Shining under the coir mat is a newly cut brass key, laying on a still-green bay leaf.

Disquiet curls in my middle. It’s a common enough charm. Bay leaf crowns victors and poets, but bay leaf can protect by hiding whatever it touches from sight. Like a key under a mat.

Or a spell you don’t want seen.

I bend knee and crouch. The leaf is fragrant—not freshly picked, but just cured enough to write on. I turn it over, but both sides are blank.

Just a small charm anyone could do, then.

Jael lifts her hand, and the bee floats away. “What does it mean?”

Nothing good. “I don’t know, mouse.”

“Are you scared?”

Yes. But you don’t tell little girls that. You need to be brave for them. You need to walk tall in the presence of evil, so they know they can stand against it.

I smile down at Jael. “Let’s go back home. I’ll make us tea.”


Even the wait until the start of the business day is too long. I’m in the workroom before the sun, fussing with gallon glass jars to check the potency of their contents. I unscrew a clean jar with rainwater gathered from the roof and pour it over dried roots, grasses, blossoms, and leaves, careful of their harmonies. I trickle in honey powder and take it up the birdcage elevator to let it bathe in sunlight. How to cover my domain with its blessings is tomorrow’s problem to solve.

When I ride the elevator back down, Jael is there. She perches on the fourth step leading up to the mezzanine. Mama would have asked me if a young lady should sit on the steps in a dress like that, but Mama’s words could bruise a girl as delicate as this.

“I had cereal,” she says. “And only one spoon of sugar. I washed the dishes after.”

“Very good,” I say. “When Lorraine comes back to tend the house, would you like her to teach you to cook?”

She shrinks a little when I mention Lorraine. “Can’t you teach me?”

“I can do a little. But no one makes a pie like Lorraine does. Now I want you to read one of the books I set out for you, whichever one you like. I have to run some errands.” I pin my veiled pillbox hat into place.

She regards this with a flicker of fear. “You’re leaving me alone? Can’t I come with you?”

“I’m going to the bank, mouse. To talk about numbers and finance.”

She sighs and shakes her head for the follies of adults. “Boring things.”

“Indeed.” I check my handbag for keys, blessed candies, and a charm bag meant to shield me from interference. “You may read anything you like from the list. If you get hungry, there are apples and peanuts in the kitchen. Have a glass of milk.”

I leave her sitting exactly there and stride across the sidewalk to Mama’s big black car.


I never need an appointment at Cade Henry Credit Union, not even on payday. I’m greeted before my third step falls on the floor. Neighbors nod hello as I walk past the line and sit at Clarence Young’s desk. A cup of red-amber tea rests in a saucer next to me, the liquid rolling gently with the haste of its delivery.

“Miss l’Abielle,” Clarence says, his wide, friendly face creased with kindness for me. “It was a beautiful service. You sang so wonderfully. What may I help you with today?”

“I’m here to purchase a house,” I say. “I’d like you to start the process for a mortgage. This is the address for your records.”

I slide a card with the Coleman’s address on it past Clarence’s nameplate. When he picks it up, his expression goes slack.

“I’m sorry, Miss l’Abielle. But I’m afraid it’s too late.”

My chin comes up. “How do you know that?”

He glances left, looks the other way. No one is nearby. “I handled the Colemans’ account. They paid for their mortgage just the other day, penalty and all, with a cashier’s check.”

I sit up a little, cocking my head. “That fast.”

“He left the moving truck idling on the curb. They’re halfway to the coast by now. George said—”

He goes silent. I pick up my tea. It’s astringent with lemon. He watches the cup meet the saucer and lowers his voice.

“George said they paid him to offer the house.”

Aha. I set the tea on the desk. “Who’s they?”

Clarence really shouldn’t be telling me this. His conscience writhes, tensing the cords in his neck, ripples in a jaw he has to press shut. He wants to tell me, knows he shouldn’t. I think of brooks babbling and wait.

Another glance for listening ears. He leans closer. “The check came from a company called the Angelica Group.”

I don’t know that name, but it plucks at my nerves. “May I borrow your phone book?”

He even gives me a card and a pen to write the address.


The Angelica Group is in a building that used to house people. It sits back from the sidewalk, double-wide and shorter than the shining glass-faced buildings pressing against it. A low stone wall bristling with spikes pushes people away from the front doors. Pedestrians veer into the middle of the sidewalk, giving it arm’s length. The old windows are bricked into narrow clerestory slits, and the old glass-fronted door is long, long gone. But that’s not all I see. Wards and repulsion spells five layers deep cover every single brick. Menace drips from every iron spike.

I am safe inside Mama’s Cadillac, safe from that web of spellwork, and I am not stepping on that sidewalk for anything. I can’t touch those wards. But I attempt to follow their dizzying geometry and catch a thread, here and there, of spells written to attract more: more wealth. More power. They stretch their tendrils across the air, spokes of a spider’s web, and it’s worse than I thought. I cast my senses down carefully, afraid to touch the earth in this place.

Am I in a domain? I can’t be. The signs of walking into another magician’s province are difficult to miss. The building before me is a magician’s stronghold, but the land beneath it belongs to no one.

And that echoes along my bones. Pieces fall into place. Mama would have sensed this incursion long before I drove right up to it, but the domain didn’t pass to me until her long sleep passed into death. This building is trouble. It’s danger, and I have to face it alone.

The front door opens, and those spiteful, wasp-sting wards wrap around a short, slender man in a three-piece suit, cloaking him in their protection. He snaps his fingers as the door swings shut behind him. He’s sharp with fashion, his Afro picked out high, but his mouth is a cruel, tight line. My heart beats like a rabbit spotted by a wolf.

He’s wearing aviators, but he’s looking right through the window between him and me. My mouth is dry. I see what I have done. I rushed into the middle of the board, coming here like this without scrying, without asking the cards. I didn’t even run a property check. And now this landless magician has my measure.

Very well, magician. I see you. I know what you want. And you can’t have it, so long as I draw breath.

I nod to him. He nods back.

It’s war.


I drive through the city by the power of muscle memory, thoughts whirling too fast to make any meaning of it, but when I back Mama’s Cadillac into the space before my house, the numb, automatic wall tumbles to the ground. My hands shake on the steering wheel. They shake in the lock. I can’t take a breath that feeds my lungs until I’m past the vestibule and inside the cocoon of protections that quilt the house, and what comes out next is a sob.

Safe in the house, I shake. I weep in silence. I don’t want to disturb Jael, or scare her. But this weakness, this fear, this crushing possibility that I might not withstand this fight saturates my body, filling it to overflowing. How can I do this without Mama? How can I do it alone? How can I protect everyone who lives here, and the place we have made for one another?

What if I can’t?

Hot tears slide down my neck.

Mama still had things to teach me. I knew the boundaries of the domain, and I tended the five corner marks, and made sure everyone knew that they could come to me if trouble came. When Mama grasped my hand the skin and nerves and veins of Hurston Hill became my own, but I know hardly anything about this new body. I don’t know how to defend it from that wasp-hearted man, or how to fight back. I weep until the tears run dry.

In the empty calm that comes after the last of the tears, I remember Jael, reading upstairs. Fate brought her here. She has a gift, as I had when my own mother brought me here in exchange for a light that shone only on her. Jael needs me to be what Mama had been.

I dab at my face and breathe in the scent of vetiver and lemongrass floor wash and the magic layered on this house, magic that I watch over like Mama did, and Grand Olympe, and Madam Louise, and Miss Violet, who built it for the bees. The magic is strong; their magic is inside me.

Calm settles over me. It’s simple. The possibility of failure is not for me to think about. My only choice is to keep Hurston Hill safe.

“So be it,” I murmur to the house. “See to it.”

The house around me relaxes, releasing a gently held breath. I turn for the stairs and startle, a scream caught in my throat.

Jael sits on the steps exactly where I left her.

Exactly as I left her—hands on her knees, the full drape of her seersucker skirt spreading over the stairs, her straight and careful back perfectly upright. Her eyes are open, but she doesn’t see. Breaths swell her skinny chest, but she’s so still, so strange, like she isn’t really there at all.

Like she switched off the moment I wasn’t in sight.

The meaning of it quivers along my nerves. Oh, girl. Poor girl. I move, so her eyes have something to see. I scuff my foot on the floorboards, so her ears have something to hear. I speak, when neither of those things work. “Jael? Little mouse?”

She blinks. She moves. She sees me. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Are you all right?”

Two vertical furrows crease between her brows. “I think I fell asleep.”

That wasn’t sleep. Maybe that’s how it feels, to go away from everything including yourself. “Let’s get you washed up. No cooking lesson for lunch today. We’re going to eat at Dolly’s Counter.”


Dolly’s Counter doesn’t hum like it should. Every eye darts to the front door as its greeting bells ring; shoulders fall or square up at the sight of me, according to the opinions of their bearer. But that isn’t what’s important.

Dolly’s not holding court before the line of sidewalk philosophers who claim the seats at the counter, crowned with her high bouffant updo with a coffeepot in one hand. Dolly’s always behind the counter, though. Always.

I touch the five-corner mark on the doorjamb. It trembles under my touch. Beside me, Jael grips my hand tight. The other diners simmer in their feelings—unspoken, but clearly felt.

“What is it?” I ask the diners, all of them looking at me. “What’s wrong?”

The doors to the kitchen swing open, and a white woman armed with a clipboard steps out. Dolly’s right on her heels with her nostrils flared, her aura like two raised fists. “You’re fining me for a violation?”

The woman tips her clipboard straight up like a shield. “Four critical violations.”

“This is wrong,” Dolly says. “Can’t you see that?”

“Re-serving unprotected and potentially hazardous food.” The woman lifts one finger away from her clipboard to count it. “Re-serving unprotected food automatically follows from there. Eating or drinking from open containers in food storage areas. Personal cleanliness of a person present found to be inadequate.” Her fingers drum back down on the clipboard, and I seal my tongue to the roof of my mouth lest a stray ill wish slips loose.

Dolly’s broad mouth is a study in disapproval, her eyebrows low like storm clouds. “So it’s acceptable if a man—a man, with feelings and dignity just like yours—has to root around in the trash for a meal, but if I give him some gumbo and rice and a place to enjoy it next to the extra soda syrup—”

“It’s four critical health violations,” the woman says. “If he’d been scavenging in your garbage, that would have been a general violation.”

I rarely meet anyone who needs quite this much cursing. The silence in the room trembles. I clench my jaw. One word in a room brimming like this and I don’t know what would happen. I don’t know what fate would exact as its price.

The woman slides a form off her clipboard and holds it out. “You can pay your fine at City Hall within thirty days. Good day.”

She steps past me and onto the street, the bells’ swinging jingle the only sound for the space of a dozen held breaths. Dolly stares at me over the line in her bifocals, her expression just sick.

“Something is happening,” she says. “Something is wrong.”

That declaration looses a flood. Rents have been raised. Property tax assessors are crawling the streets. Water bills and light bills are suddenly much higher. And worst, most chilling of all—men from downtown in sleek sedans cruise the streets, looking at every house, every shop, even the trees. Men with grey suits and money-counting hands huddle in conversations on the corners, shutting up when anyone gets too near.

This war’s already happening. And everyone in Dolly’s is looking at me, expecting me to know exactly what to do.

What I must do. Whatever Hurston Hill needs. But where do I enter this labyrinth? What fire do I put out first?

Jael tugs on my hand. She’s big-eyed and somber as she finds her voice. “Ma’am.”

“What is it, mouse?”

“Can I help? I can write a list.”

It’s like a sunbeam just fell on my face. “Dolly, do you have a pencil? Jael is going to help me. Everyone, sit tight. I need you all to tell me what’s happening, one at a time.”


There is no time to get a good rest, no time to mourn. I wake before dawn to greet the bees as they rise from their hives. The worker-sisters gather around me and their hum is a chorus, a hum that lulls me into the state I need to be one with the domain that the bees claim and I protect. And when they rise to the clouds to gather and watch, the queen emerges to show me what the bees know.

“St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid,” I say. “I need your help. We’re all in danger.”

Show me.

She rides on my shoulder as I return downstairs to the big room that was Mama’s office. We stand under the watchful eye of the guardian masks and unroll a fragile, crackling bundle of paper maps of Hurston Hill.

I begin by gazing at every layer at once. It’s all confusion at this level—too much information to make true meaning. But I let the confusion overwhelm me as I look without trying to see the layers that show every streetlamp, every traffic light, every tree that lines the streets—at the placement of every fire hydrant and the pipes that bring good water to drink and wash in, the pipes that take wastewater away. Gradually, as long as my attention stays slack, I see.

Another assault on the barrier wards, of course. But there’s more trouble, scattered all over my streets like bad seeds. Double crosses and jinxes and even spells to attract attention marking homes and businesses but especially our park—why the park?

Danger, the queen’s wings sing. It has gone so far.

There is so much to do—a thousand tiny battles, and I have to fight them all. But the park’s in danger. The soul of the neighborhood’s magic grows in the common garden. Its heart beats to the concerts and plays performed under its curving shell roof. And the weakness I see isn’t the nibbling at my borders. It’s a scythe, raised at the highest point of the backswing and ready to fall on the park.

I let the layers of the map curl up one by one, taking away the fullness of detail that defies legibility. Each layer whispers and crackles, and I look, look without trying to see anything in particular.

My gaze falls on the zone map. It’s every building and structure, every quilt-square of land assigned a color according to its use. Yellow for residential, red for business, and the park doesn’t know what color it wants to be. It should be green, colored in exactly the color of new spring leaves, but it tinges orange, and the park on the map struggles to stay the same, to stay true.

I press my hands against the slow, sick roll in my stomach, and the layers of delicate, glassy paper curl up on themselves.

I understand what that means. Mama protected Hurston Hill with charms and wards, but Mama said that it was possible to fight magic with any power you had. And in every day I fought to keep Mama with me, even though she would never speak or rise from her bed was a day I hadn’t seen this.

I pick up Mama’s address book. I cut my finger on a corner and I hiss, jerking it away. Blood wells up from the tiny cut. I pop it in my mouth.

It’s open on exactly the page I need. Written in Mama’s clear Palmer hand is a number that isn’t in the ordinary phone book. There should be someone at the desk right now. I push my cut finger into the dial holes and listen to the rattle of each number sending their signal out on the wires.

The phone rings five times before someone answers with a gruff, “Hunter Ballantine here.”

I arm myself with a smile. “Councillor Ballantine. This is Miss Theresa Anne l’Abielle of 777-J 94th Street of Council 21,” I say.

“Miss l’Abielle,” Councillor Ballantine says, the last syllable climbing a surprised half-step. He coughs. “Excuse me. Miss l’Abielle, I am sorry for your loss. I regret I couldn’t attend the service.”

“The wreath your office sent along was lovely,” I say. “Most appreciated and thoughtful. But I have a question for you, Councillor.”

Half a breath too late, he says, “Certainly. What may I do for you?”

“I am calling to ask about any land use petitions connected to Hurston Hill Community Park.”

“How—” The voice on the other end is astonished, but one composed pause later, Councillor Ballantine continues. “There have been no land use petitions filed.”

“Because they only just landed on your desk?” I ask, and the frustrated tenor of his silence tells me everything before he opens the can holding his response.

“I really can’t go into it right now, Miss l’Abielle. If you’d like to call my secretary and make an appointment—”

“Oh, I would prefer to have this conversation now,” I say, light, polite, and seething with genteel fury. “I know you’re a busy man, so I’ll get right to the point. I don’t think a proposal to destroy a park for the sake of mixed-use zoning with active frontage is the best way to keep the faith of your voters, Councillor Ballantine.”

Papers rustle. Councillor Ballantine’s breaths whistle down the phone lines. “Miss l’Abielle, this is a complex issue. If you’d make an appointment, I can have a better picture of the situation you’re describing—”

If that park is destroyed, the whole neighborhood will follow. “The issue is simple. Hurston Hill Community Park will remain as it is. This is an election-losing matter, Councillor, and if you threaten Hurston Hill’s children and seniors with the loss of a vital community center, someone might step up to challenge you.”

I didn’t plan on saying that. But anything it takes. Anything Hurston Hill needs. If Ballantine can’t take care of his council, I will take it away from him.

He says nothing, and I hear the trickle of fear in it. I need his fear. I need it to guide him away from his greed. I need him to understand that he can’t trifle with me any more than he could with Mama. “I think you should reconsider this plan from the Angelica Group, Councilman. I really do.”

“How do you know—”

“That’s my secret,” I say. “I look forward to continuing my support of your office. Good morning.”

The receiver rattles in its cradle. I’m going to be sick. There is too much to do. Too much that needs saving. The scythe is falling.

“Miss l’Abielle?”

Jael hovers at the entrance to my office. She’s holding a sheet of paper. She’s drawn a house on it—this house, tall and narrow and grand with brick, the ivy climbing up the front. But she’s done something else with her sixty-four colors, as she has drawn the glow of spells and blessings too, and the rooftop garden shines like Heaven, and all the bees its angels.

She offers it to me. “I drew it for you.”

The paper touches my fingers. It shimmers. It feels like the cozy confines of a burrow made from a tent built of sheets and cushions from the couch. She put magic on that paper without knowing how.

“Please let me help,” Jael says, again the bright student, again desperate to please. “How can I help?”

I step forward, the queen on my shoulder. “Come with me,” I say, “and show me how you made this picture.”


Jael has the witching in her blood. She doesn’t know the correspondences or the lore or the ways of shaping the witching to her will, but she’s quick. She’s instinctive. And she minds me better than I did Mama at her age.

Together we work for the sum of the morning. Everything I show her is a softly glowing treasure. It lights up her face. She touches all the herb jars, and repeats what I tell her about their contents, pressing them in the pages of her memory. She asks me about everything—so many questions, as if my answers are like the sugar she can’t resist eating.

“If we’re going to bless all the spellposts and charge every five-corner mark, what else can we do?”

She stirs the jar of blessed water I set out on the roof to charge under the sun and the moon, sinking a silver dipper into it and pouring the liquid into the mouth of a funnel. The blessed water trickles into a glass bottle. She doesn’t spill a drop.

“Whatever we can think of. Magic is imagination shaped into the form that will make the intention manifest.”

She pours blessed water back into the jar, screws a spray-nozzle cap onto the bottle, and sets it next to the others. “Can we make everyone in the neighborhood lucky?”

“Luck is best in small doses, mouse. A rescue, not a remedy. But you can choose three people to give a charm today.”

That satisfies her. “And I can spray the spellposts.”

“You may.”

“May,” she corrects herself, and then a new idea springs to her face. She’s bright with elation, with discovery. “Can we set a spell on the bees, and then when they fly around, they can spread it?”

I blink. “If the bees consent, yes. That’s an excellent idea, little mouse.”

She looks like she might burst. How must it feel to find your gift, the thing you love that loves you back, and so you give your life to it without thinking? Jael’s becoming a witch right before my eyes.

She reaches for another bottle and sets the funnel in it. “Can we set eyes on outsiders, so they always feel like someone’s watching them and knows exactly what they do?”

I’m tempted by that last one.

Being a witch isn’t all sunlight and good wishes. We all have shadows cast by that light. We can call on that darkness like any other tool. But it’s possible to go too far, and something about the ethics of it is just fuzzy enough that I’m not sure I should.

But if I did that . . .

I realize that my gaze is trained on the potted bay tree right by the window. I look away.

“It’s possible,” I say. “But that could really frighten someone who doesn’t deserve it, along with those who might.”

“Oh, not for long.” She stirs the blessed water again, suspending the herbs in a spiral. “We couldn’t leave it up forever. We can’t leave out the people who need this place. But . . . what if they need it right now? Like I needed it?”

She understands. She already knows the complexity of the power. She already respects it. I want to cry. Not like I want to cry for Mama being gone. I want to cry for Jael being found.

Jael is the one to come behind me when I go to follow Mama. Jael’s mother had to make that wish, pay that price, and give me Hurston Hill’s future . . . and just in time, in the way of the life of one who is bound to fate.


I stop just outside the front door and give Jael a tin of rose sugar pastilles. She takes it with reverence, looking down at the rounded white candies like little seed pearls.

“Sugar keeps the magic strong,” I say, and something in her dark eyes is sad for half a second.

“Thank you, ma’am.” She pops one in her mouth and takes my hand as we walk the bounds of Hurston Hill. She sprays every lamppost chained into the flow of magic. She touches each one, sending a shimmer along its iron trunk. I carry a basket of the smaller bottles, and we call on everyone we meet, tending their shops or their front steps. Many accept a spray bottle and the instructions to spray it on their windows, their doorways, their cash registers.

Each bottle is a tiny magic, but pennies add up to dollars. Dolly won’t let us pay for smoked chicken sandwiches rich with gravy, with a soda for Jael and fresh brewed tea for me. The Golden Horticultural League starts spraying every leaf in sight when I hand out bottles to them to take home, plus extra for neighbors who couldn’t make it to the garden today.

The bees tumble and float, shedding protection magic from their wings. I ache from all the walking and regret my refusal to step out in less than my best, for my feet are paying the price of the blessings we spread.

But is it enough, these small magics? Can they withstand whatever that landless mage at the Angelica Group plans? I’m only defending against what I can see. He must be planning something more. It’s not enough to react. I must anticipate.

I’m weary when we make it back to the house. I can’t stop the relieved groan when I take my shoes off and stand on the heart pine floor, my heels on the ground instead of tented on pillars. I roll my neck, shrug my shoulders, and listen to everything pop and creak.

“I can make us something, ma’am,” Jael says. “I can make it and you can watch and tell me what’s next.”

What a good idea. If only we could do that. “I’m afraid it’s pork shoulder pot roast.”

“I can do it,” Jael insists. “I’m not tired at all.”

This helpful, blessed girl. “Very well. But you must be very careful when you cut up the potatoes.”

She runs to the kitchen. By the time I get there she’s already in an apron, pulling a heavy iron pot out of the drawer under the oven. I sit where I have the best view of the process.

“Recipe’s in the yellow box,” I tell her, and she flips through the cards until she finds the right one. She clips it to the cupboard door just above her working space, kicks a step stool into position, and starts.

I hardly have to say anything. I tense a little when she picks up the knife, but she speaks up as she slices through a potato. “It’s like witching.”

“It is,” I say. “Cooking and witching share skills. And you can witch your meals.”

“You can?”

“Of course you can. The herbs in the kitchen are in the workroom too, aren’t they?”

“That’s right. I didn’t think of it like that. It’s all witching, isn’t it? If you can do it, you can witch it. Can’t you?”

“You can,” I say. “It’s important to know that. Your actions can make magic, so you must think about what you’re doing, more than other people have to.”

She looks at me, careful, measuring her thoughts before she speaks them. “Can you make sure that what you do isn’t magic?”

“I’m afraid we’re stuck with it—”

Jael gasps. She drops the knife and snatches up her hand, whimpering. I’m out of my seat in a heartbeat, trying to take her hand, but she grips tighter, shaking her head.

I try to peel her fingers back. “Let me see.”


She’s trembling. Her breaths are shallow and scared. She looks at me, desperate and pleading. I try to take her hand again, but she yanks it out of my grip and stumbles off the stool.

“Jael, let me see.”

“No. Please don’t look.” Her voice is discordant. She backs away, holding her cut hand for dear life, and she’s . . . she’s scared. Terrified. What on earth?

“Mouse,” I say, gentle, firm. “I have to see it. I can’t make it better if I can’t see. It will hurt, I won’t lie. But I can make it better.”

“Please,” she says, but there’s no voice in it. Fear’s taken her vocal cords and pulled them tight as bowstrings. Why? Why?

“Jael. Why can’t I see?”

“Then you’ll know,” she says, and tears pour out of her eyes like a river. “You’ll know and it—it’ll be—over.”

She’s weeping now, heartbroken, despairing tears. “It’ll be over,” she says, and it breaks her all over again.

I rush to her. I pick her up, right off her feet. I crush her to me as if I can hug her hard enough, hold her tight enough to make it all go away. “You’re safe,” I say.

“No,” she says, “I never was. You never were—I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m—”

I hold her again. I rock her. She has to cry this one out before I’ll get any sense out of her. But something presses on my skin, like low black clouds pregnant with a storm, a solid wall rushing in so fast everything feels like lightning will strike any moment.

Danger. Danger. Something is coming. Someone—

But I know, don’t I? I already know. He is coming—the wasp-magician in his fine clothes and his vicious wards. Now, before I’ve mobilized the neighborhood to do battle with City Hall. Our dollar’s worth of magic didn’t hold him back. He is coming, right now, and every board in the house is tight with expectation.

In my arms, Jael goes quiet. She’s limp, tired. Her sigh is resigned, like someone who just turned around to face the monster behind her, knowing she can run no more.

“I’m sorry.”

She holds out her hand for me to see.

She doesn’t bleed. No red life stains her skin, sliced neat and deep. No red flesh lies under that cut in her . . . hide. Not skin.


And underneath it, cotton bolls stuff her form, dusty with shiny white grains, speckled dark fragrant ones. Allspice. Mace. Nutmeg. Vanilla. Sugar and spice and everything nice, stuff little girls are made from.

I touch the cut, the cotton, the sugar. I press, and something hard stretches beneath. I pry the cotton apart and find bone engraved with marks and signs, the magic to make her alive. A faded green leaf lies curled against the bone—a bay leaf, shielding the magic that made Jael from sight.

She looks at me. Sad, and calm, and full of endings. “It’s over now. I’m sorry.”

I reach up and stroke her tear-wet face. It feels like skin, real breathing skin, and her face blurs as the tears rise in my eyes. Poor little mouse.

Poor little mousetrap.

She leaps away when the wards flinch and the front door opens, and it isn’t the magician I expected.

It’s worse.


Livia strides inside on stiletto-heeled clicks, buttery suede boots clinging to her legs. She wears black, not for mourning, but for power—the liquid ripple of matte black silk drapes over her slender, elegant body, the elaborate tie at her waist a knot spell. Full draping sleeves in black silk chiffon flutter as she moves, rippling like the surface of a moonlit lake. A sparkling black silk pouch dangles from her wrist. Her hair flows around her like shining ink, big roller-set curls bouncing like springs to her waist.

No sign of the ragged, skinny wretch from my doorstep. Livia is a witch in full bloom, full of shadows and promises. She’s the dark moon. An enchantress. An illusionist who pays you in gold that turns to leaves in the morning. The question of ethics never troubles her smooth, rounded brow. Nothing remains of that pathetic creature whose want was enough to make an accident of fate.

She pauses on the foyer’s worn Turkish rug and snaps her fingers when our eyes meet.

Not an accident. An act. A hustle.

I rise and put myself between Jael and this witch, staring her down the way I would if I didn’t want to hide.

“It was you,” I say. “It was you at the Angelica Group too. Were you the health inspector too?”

“Clever, clever witch. I wasn’t the health inspector, but Antoine’s a convenient disguise. Some men won’t listen to anyone but other men,” she says. “And people don’t look deeper than their first assumptions. That’s the first rule of invisibility.”

She can be anyone she pleases—a wretched waif, a stylish businessman, or the queen of shadows and lies. I gather up the power layered on the walls to cast a binding—or I try. My magic is the act of making and mixing. I put my will into herbs and candles, imbuing it with the blessings of the sun. There is no spellcord in my pocket, and I need a medium between witching and my will.

Livia does not. She smiles at me from under the perfectly heat-curled wings of her hair. She watches me draw power and falter, tilting her head with curiosity. One eyebrow quirks up.

“No? All right, then.”

She points, her index finger capped with fresh-blood crimson nails, and shows me how it’s done. Lines of power wrap around me. They still my fingers. They squeeze my ribs. I can breathe, so long as I set my mind to it, but not much more than that, and it isn’t enough air to scream with, either.

She regards her binding a moment longer, her hands on her hips. Then Livia—witch, magician, enchantress—lifts her hand and beckons.

“Jael. Come here.”

Jael runs a few steps on tiptoe, halting before her maker.

Livia looks down at her. No smile, now. “What did I tell you to do while you were here?”

“Always use your manners,” Jael says, in the small mouse voice of a little girl in trouble. “Do as she says until you come back. Sugar keeps the magic strong.”

The pointed toe of Livia’s boot taps three times. “And what did I tell you not to do?”

Her voice is almost a whisper. “Give away the secret.”

“Are you sorry?”


Livia beckons again. “Come closer.”

Jael trembles as she comes close enough to touch. Livia puts her hand on Jael’s head.

“You did what you were made to do,” Livia says, stroking Jael’s braided hair. “And you did it well. This one slip doesn’t need to count against you. My promise still holds.”

Jael looks up, then, hope smoothing her profile. “You’ll do it? You’ll make me real?”

Livia laughs. “Don’t I need a little girl of my own, especially a helpful little girl like you? Now think of what I told you. The spell can be completed, exactly as I said. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” Jael says. “I’m ready.”

“Good,” Livia purrs, and pets Jael’s head like a favored cat. “This part is your job, now.”

She opens the pouch strings and reaches inside. She draws out a knife with a long silvery blade and a narrow, pointed tip.

“The last thing you need to finish the spell,” she says. “Her heart.”

Jael can become a girl of flesh, her bones her own—with my heart beating in her chest. She will be what she wishes for most. The spell is already on her.

All she needs to do is pay the price.

Jael lifts her hand—uncut, still whole, still spelled—and takes the blade from her maker. Livia smiles down upon her, strokes her hair again.

“I’m going to the roof. Bring it to me when you are done.”

Livia walks away on sharp-heeled clicks, sleeves fluttering, a ribbon of almond, bay leaf, pepper, and myrrh left hanging in the air.

Jael stands still with the knife in her hand, listening to the elevator grumble and rise to the roof. To the garden. To the spellposts that feed all the protections and blessings that cover Hurston Hill. To the hives where the bees sleep and don’t know what’s coming.

The elevator thumps. The lifting gears stop. And Jael turns tear-filled eyes toward me.

Oh, little mousetrap. What a perfect Trojan horse she is—a little girl, the price of a mother’s ambition in full, a lonely arrow in my heart. Built to be just polite enough to be charming, just vulnerable enough to need protection, and the witching the final sugary lure.

And now she holds the knife that will pay for her deepest longing, the thing she wants most of all—the wanting engraved on her borrowed bones, the wanting infused in cotton and spice, the wanting in every stitch and spell that made her. She flexes her grip on the handle, wipes her eyes, and looks at me.

“You took me in.”

How could I not?

“You gave me this dress. You taught me witching. You have power. Can you make me real? Can you make me a little girl? Can I grow up?”

Oh, Jael. My throat hurts for her. I owe her the truth. I shake my head, once, slow.

“Then I have to,” she whispers. “I have to—it’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

That’s not true. Magic is implacably fair. If Jael wants a human life, she needs a human heart beating in her chest. Magic doesn’t care about feelings. Magic doesn’t care what it costs to use—only that the price is paid.

“I need to be real,” she whispers to me. “I walk and speak and think and witch, but I am not a girl, and . . .”

She wants me to understand. And I do. But it’s not just my life for hers. It’s this house. And Hurston Hill. And the bees. And what will happen to this place if Livia takes it in her hand and rules it.

All of it, lost for a beating heart.

“You didn’t push me away. You knew I wasn’t real. But you didn’t stop trying to help me. Why? Didn’t you understand?”

I suck down as much air as I can and move my lips, my tongue. I can whisper. “You were scared.”

“I betrayed you.”

“You did—” I have to catch my breath. “What you were made to do.”

She crumples, her mouth open in agony. “I ruined everything. You need to hate me. I hate me.”

The binding doesn’t stop tears, it seems. “Little mouse.”

“Don’t call me that!” she shrieks. “I don’t deserve it! I don’t . . .”

She lifts her unspelled hand. She covers her eyes. She weeps, great sobs shaking her body. “I need to be real. I need to be real. I need—”

She breaks all over again, landing on her knees. The knife clatters to the floor. She hugs herself around her middle, arms across the wide satin ribbon on her porcelain-doll dress, lifts her face to the sky, and a little girl shouldn’t weep like that. A little girl shouldn’t know this pain. A little girl should never know what it means to have to choose a price like this.

She kneels on the worn wool rug and weeps, alone.

“Little mouse,” I whisper, when the storm passes through her and she’s left hitching for breath in the hollowness crying leaves behind. “This is what magic is. It can’t help it, any more than you can.”

Her eyes are red. She looks at the knife on the floor, saying nothing. And then resolve settles on her, armoring her will and her conscience. She looks down at the floor, at the rug, at the knife.

She picks it up. She gets to her feet. And she walks toward me, blade held low and slightly away.

There’s nothing to say now.

She raises the blade, so silver, so sharp, and slices the air just above my body. She cuts Livia’s binding away, silent and resolute. She frees me and steps back, solemn and red-eyed.

“You have to stop her,” Jael says. “Please.”

She holds out the knife. I take it from her hand and pause to look at her. I bend down and kiss her forehead and pet her hair.

“Stay here,” I say. “Stay safe.”

I turn and hit the staircase at a two-at-a-time run.


Five flights, at my age. My side stitches pain with an angry needle. I’m breathing in great desperate whoops. My heart pounds, still running even though I have halted, peering at the rooftop where Livia stands with her hands upraised, sorting through the threads of magic spun and woven over Hurston Hill. She pinches at a thread meant to shelter those who fled here for refuge, hiding them from angry spouses and cruel parents, and pulls it out of the weave. She finds the lines designed to draw people who need a little help to the web of secondhand shops, the food kitchen, and the medical clinic run by the Josephites, and yanks them free with a vicious flair.

I flinch, but I put my hand on the doorknob and hush it with a word. I pluck a basil leaf from a nearby plant, shuffle sideways to pick up a roll of garden twine. The blade whispers through the jute and vibrates in my grip, prickling for more.

No. This knife hungers to cut. It’s . . . eager. I set it down on the bench. I don’t want to know what it does if it gets a taste of blood. Not even the blood of the woman before me, pulling down the magic built to help everyone, ready to destroy generations of service to Hurston Hill and weave in spells that help her alone.

She could choose to take over the easy way. She could pull the whole thing down and rebuild it to suit her, the way some people will take a grand old house built by artisans and craftsmen and discard everything that makes it beautiful to put up vinyl siding they don’t have to paint. Instead, she means to take the old magic and subvert it to her will.

That means there’s something to save. Or there will be if I pluck up my courage and do something. I fear what I have to do here, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have to do it.

I crush the basil in my hand and rub it over the twine. The fragrance rises, bathing me in its peppery sweetness. Courage. Victory against tremendous odds. David felled a giant with a stone, once. I have a tool. I must use it.

I whisper, though this spell will be a trumpeting herald. “I bind your hands and their wicked mischief.”

I pull the first knot in the twine tight, and she freezes.

She turns around, wolf eyes trained on the rabbit-fast heart beneath my blouse, her mouth pursed up in a pout. “Is it ever the fate of the creator to be disappointed by what she has made? I thought I built Jael better than that. Now here you are, come to fight me with a piece of string.”

I string another knot in the cord. “You will trouble us no more. I bind your tongue and its evil words.” I plant my feet on the boardwalk and reach for the spellposts, ready to pull the cord tight.

I can’t touch them. She’s tied them to her already, and all the power of the house—all the power of Hurston Hill—is hers to command. All the power I have is what lives inside my body.

I remember the knife left on the table with regret.

She takes a step toward me, the slow and certain sauntering of a predator who likes it when their prey is scared. “What pluck. What courage. You brave, brave fool.”

She flexes her power like a careless shrug and breaks the small binding I put on her. She lifts her hand, fingers spread, and lines of power spring from her blood-tipped fingernails to wrap around my wrists and ankles. I pull away.

I can’t.

She smirks and raises her hand, her fingers sliding in subtle movements. I stand on my tiptoes. My arms spread out, elegant, majestic, wrists and fingers in second position. My right shoulder in this position makes me want to whimper. She watches as she pulls gently on the power and makes me dance with my head high.

“There we go,” Livia coos. My stomach pitches and rolls at the sugar in her voice. “I think we understand each other a little better now, don’t you agree?”

I can’t move in a way she doesn’t wish me to. The twine lies discarded on the boards. I dance, and it pleases her to send me spinning in a series of pirouettes that make me so dizzy I can’t quite focus on what’s in front of me when she lets me stop.

There is no way to escape.

“You’re a problem. I meant for you to have a use. But here you are, with your heart intact, my creation a disappointment . . . but this might be better. People will wonder if you suddenly disappear, won’t they? We should solve that.”

She turns me to the front of the house. I take a step. Another. One more, past the hives. One more, toward the roof’s cornice, and I understand what she means to do.

And when the horror of it reverberates through me, when I desperately fight her control, she chuckles.

“Grief’s terrible. Isn’t it? It hurts too much to bear, sometimes. People die of grief, you know. It breaks their hearts, and they just die. But some of them . . .”

My feet keep walking. Oh no. No, no. No. Oh please don’t, stop. Stop—


The word escapes me and I can hardly believe it.


Jael’s voice. Pounding footsteps on the boardwalk. An outraged cry of pain, and the marionette strings binding me fall slack.

There’s blood on that knife now. Livia’s half bent over, clutching at a wound in her side. And Jael’s swinging wildly, trying to give that blade another taste.

“Stop! Stop it! Stop!” Jael cries, but Livia snarls a command and Jael freezes in place. Still Livia’s creation. Still bound to her maker. And now Livia picks up the knife, drunk on blood, and she pulls her gore-stained hand away from her side to grab a handful of Jael’s hair, pulling her chin up, exposing her neck.

She reverses her grip on the blade, ready to slice, and my heart drops to the floor.

I lunge, snatching Livia’s wrist. I dig my fingers in and twist with all my strength, and a pop running down her arm vibrates under my fingers.

Livia screams. Jael falls down, scrabbling backward. The knife clatters to the boards and there’s no time to do anything but pay the price. Anything, for Jael. Anything, for Hurston Hill. Anything, for the bees.

I pick up the knife and drive it deep. The blade jumps in my hand, seeking the heart. It drinks. Livia falls.

But Jael lies on the sun-bleached boards, her limbs splayed out, her staring, empty eyes open to the twilit sky.


This is what magic is.

I crawl to Jael, still, quiet Jael. Still so lifelike, though the magic is fading. Her eyes are turning to glass. Her skin is smoothing out like hide. Her hair is untidy, her hairband askew, and her limbs are going stiff.

My tears fall on Jael’s face. On Jael’s dress. It’s perfectly logical, perfectly fair—Jael’s creator is dead. The magic that gave Jael life is gone. She’s a doll, now. Just a doll.

I hold her in my arms. I hug her to my chest. I stroke her bloodied, cashmere-soft hair and I hold her close as the magic fades from her.

“You were wrong, you know.” It hurts my throat to whisper it in her painstakingly carved ear. “You were real. You were a little girl. You were good, and kind, and you were real, no matter what you were made of.”

I straighten the collar of her dress. I smooth my tears away from her cheeks. I draw her stiff doll-part body into my lap and rock her, lullaby slow.

This is what magic is. It doesn’t care how it’s used. It only cares that the price is paid.

The house and Hurston Hill are safe, and so are the bees, and Jael paid for it in full.

“It’s not fair,” I say, even though I know it is. “It’s not fair.”

A buzzing answers me. The queen emerges from her hive. She lands on Jael’s brow.

She gave so much to us. Everything she had, for us—and asked for nothing.

Her wings go still. She spreads them wide.

And then they come. Every worker-sister of the hive, every drone, too—they rise in a great murmuring cloud from the hive and land on Jael’s shoulder, her nose, her injured hand. They land on me too, and soon we are covered in worker-sisters, buzzing, working.

And then I hear it all around me. I feel it. Magic, filling me like a waterskin, sweet and clear and golden. Magic past the boundaries of my body—the magic of the house, of Hurston Hill, the magic of the bees—all of it weaving in a single task around Jael.

Cocooned in the hive, I open my heart and let them weave what they will of it. They work, and work, and when they are done, all the magic is sunk into Jael’s skin.

The queen flexes her wings. It is done.

The magic of the house is tied to her. Hurston Hill’s power sings in her veins. My witching is a glass of water; Jael’s bound to the river. The magic of this place is no longer mine. It is hers now, and I must teach her the way of it.

I feel an emptiness like the strange absence of a pulled tooth. “But I promised to serve you.”

Another road has opened, the queen says. That way is yours now.

She weaves a honey-drop of magic and moves on hair-thin feet to put it in Jael’s mouth. It spreads over her lips, and they go pink.

Jael breathes.

Honey makes the magic strong, the queen says, and then the bees take wing and fly back to the hive. I’m surrounded by the corpses of a hundred drones and Jael looking up at me, her eyes blinking, her limbs pliant and alive.

“I think I fell asleep.” She rubs at her eyes with the backs of her knuckles, and the cut on her palm is a half-healed scab. “Ma’am, are you crying?”

I weep into her hair and rock her again.


I might have the radio on a little too loud as I drive the long streets after a day’s work at City Hall up to Hurston Hill. Councillor van Darlington’s expression replays in my mind—the moment where he straightens up as the clerk from Heritage Planning lists the addresses of ten properties newly added to the register right in the neighborhood he wanted to bulldoze for the sake of a freeway. When he looks down at the paper in front of him, now a pile of useless tissue, and looks at me, mouth open to accuse—and then closes it as he realizes that he can’t accuse me of ruining a proposal he never had the chance to share.

Perfect. Sublime. And the families of Williamsville, anchored by those ten properties, can continue their fight to reshape their community on their terms. Williamsville isn’t in my council, but it doesn’t matter.

I nod to the bounce of the bass line on the radio. I turn my head to take in the whole intersection and smile at a driver who recognizes me. She grins back and waves just before she pulls ahead to turn left.

I drive the long way home, just to see how the city is doing, and when I cross the avenue and enter the domain of Hurston Hill, I don’t feel the soft caress of returning to my power. I don’t have the sense of the bees, ticking softly in the back of my head. I can still sense the power flowing all around me, but I can’t hold it in my hand and shape it to my will, not anymore.

The whole city is mine to tend, now.

I drive past the house where Lorraine sweeps the steps. She waves at me as I keep on, headed up the road to the park. There’s a spot right by the slick-polished concrete pad, and the Cadillac slides neatly into the space waiting for it.

I have that much power left, at least.

Music plays through speakers mounted on poles surrounding a slick concrete pad where boys and girls roller-skate. Jael is right in the thick of them, laughing. She skates in a cohort of girls all performing the same complex crossovers and slides at once, skating so close together that a single mistake will bring them all down. They clap their hands and scatter, spinning on tiptoe, and come back, shoulders and hips sliding.

They erupt into cheers at getting the routine right. They cluster together in a hug, and then Jael catches sight of me and rolls to my side, taking delicate steps over the grass to meet me.

“We did it,” she says. “Did you see?”

“I did. Where are your shoes?”

“I skated over after Miss Yvonne was done teaching me fractions.”

“You’ll break your head one of these days.” I shake my head. “Did you have your candy?”

“I still have one left,” she says, and digs into the pocket of her satin bomber jacket—bright golden yellow, just like her friends—to pull out a honey chew. She pops it in her mouth and rolls to the passenger door.

“You’re getting in the car in those skates?”

“I’ll be careful,” she promises.

The wards on the car brighten as she touches it. A worker-sister bobs on a gentle breeze, and Jael lifts her hand to give her a place to land. She looks at the bee intently, then at me once the bee takes flight.

“There’s a newcomer,” she says. “He’s looking at a suite in the Henri Louis Arms. The bees like him.”

“That’s good. Shall we stop at St. Joseph the Worker and let them know?”

“Tomorrow,” she says. “He hasn’t quite figured out he belongs here yet.”

“As you say.”

Jael manages to get in the front seat in those skates. I drive back to the house. We’re stopped at the first corner when she says, “Did your plan work?”

“Beautifully. Williamsville has prevailed.”

Jael smiles. “I bet Councillor van Darlington was surprised.”

“He looked like he’d just swallowed a fish,” I say. “Next is the transit initiative. That’s going to be harder to steer.”

“Should we read the cards?” Jael asks. “I need practice.”

“That’s a fine idea.”

Jael looks out the window and waves at Cynthia, out sweeping her corner sidewalk with a hand-bound broom. “Everything is just right. You’re going to be mayor one day.”

The air shivers. Something hears her say the words, and it seems fate hasn’t finished with me yet. I nod and turn onto our street.

“As you say.”

Lorraine’s inside now. The air smells like her own magic, spices and flour and buttermilk on chicken. Hunger wakes up and I could eat for an hour—and Jael makes a happy noise as she bumps the car door with her hip and skates to the steps.

“You take off those skates before you go in the house,” I say.

“Yes, ma’am. Can we go to the movies? I want to see the new Billy Dee Williams movie. Can we go?”

“Of course we can,” I say. “And we’ll watch Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher too, while we’re there.”

The witch of Hurston Hill laughs and runs up the stairs to the house in her sock feet. A worker-sister floats past the ivy growing up the bricks, and I smile at her, something in my eye.

“Thank you,” I say.

The bee, understanding, floats away.


“Ivy, Angelica, Bay” copyright © 2023 by C. L. Polk
Art copyright © 2023 by Alyssa Winans


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