iii. An Excellent Excuse
Madame Celeste’s house is a snug, cobbled cottage behind a dozen beds of sweet peas, cosmos, and love-in-a-mists. The garden alone is a flourishing, breathtaking array of colors and shapes, filtered sunset light setting the forest ablaze in waves of liquid crimson.
The atmosphere is thick with the scents from the plants—jasmine, aster, thyme, coriander. Melody’s eyes dart around the garden to take in everything at once. Perched across her shoulders, Poppy lets out a lazy yawn. Ursula grips the basket of mint, grinning at the bounty before them.
Madame Celeste holds the girls’ suitcases in either hand, high enough the wheels graze the tips of springy, fragrant lavender.
“It isn’t much, but it’s home.”
“It’s wonderful,” Melody says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Some of these are autumn plants! How are they thriving?”
“That’s part of earth magic, Ursula.” Madame Celeste sets the bags down and fits a slender, rusted key into the iron lock of the cottage door. “Good care shows the leaves they’re safe to bloom early, or late. Mostly I use the greenhouse out back.”
The door gives. A crackling fire lights the room from its hearth, a single black kettle hanging from a hook above the flames, whistling.
“Ah, damn, I’ve forgotten about the tea. Melody, I’ve got some mugs above the stove, if you’ll fetch us three? Ursula, all my dried herbs are in the little cabinet next to the shelf, why don’t you choose us something nice? I’ll put your bags in your room.”
“And I could use a cat nap,” Poppy announces, jumping to the hard floors. “Garnet, would you join me? We are officially on a three-year holiday.”
Ursula chooses dried passionflower petals, lemon balm, and a few white peppercorns. They watch as steaming water pours from the kettle into mugs, swirling the ingredients in miscellaneous patterns. Aromas waft through the sitting room, sweet and sharp. Mouth-watering.
Soon the tea is a faint purple and Madame Celeste returns from the guest room.
“Ah, passiflora incarnata, is it? And melissa officinalis? And…”
Her nose and eyes crinkle in amusement.
Ursula flushes. “I have a stomach ache.”
“Well, a little pepper never hurt anyone. Thank you, Ursula, Melody. I’ve agreed to let you two serve your apprenticeships under me because I saw potential in your portfolios.” Her green eyes dance, and Melody swallows. “Some potential isn’t obvious to the naked eye. But I’m interested in honing your skills and seeing where the next three years take you.”
“Thank you for the opportunity, ma’am,” Melody says. “I promise I won’t let you down.”
“We’ll make you proud, ma’am.”
“That’s wonderful news, girls, because after tea we have a stop to make. No rest for the wicked, I’m afraid, and we witches are very, very wicked.”
--- --- ---
They go back to town, to one of the nicer homes near the library. It’s made with brick instead of stone. Soft green moss grows up the north face. Ivory pillars and crystal windows sparkle in dimming light, curtains drawn back to expose the belly of the house. Madame Celeste has Melody carrying a pack filled with fresh scents, supple leaves, and tender blossoms. Their mentor hasn’t donned shoes even now, smirks a little when she catches Melody’s eye, all teeth as she rings the bell.
The door cracks, and a tiny face sticks out.
“Why, hello, young one,” says Madame Celeste.
The child smiles behind two filthy hands, blonde flyaways scattered about her head.
“Is your mother home?”
“She’s expecting us—may we come in?”
The child vanishes beyond the frame, leaving the door ajar. Something tickles Melody’s nose—flour, sugar. Chocolate? Madame Celeste takes the knob, pulling the door open wide.
“June is a sweetheart. Come on, girls, I’ll take you to your first client.”
June’s mother is a woman so lovely, Melody may melt.
She’s exquisite, almost pink in the way the sunset dances through the parlor, rosy lips parted in a dazzling smile. Her hair is the same hue as June’s. She sits in a high-backed armchair, spun with crushed velvet and latticed armrests, the neat-trimmed ends of her nails resting at the polished edges.
“Good evening, Sasha,” Madame Celeste greets, taking the pack from Melody’s back.
Sasha beams. “Celeste! Good evening, and thank you for coming on such short notice. Are these your new apprentices?”
“Melody and Ursula. They flew in this afternoon. You don’t mind if they’re here, do you, Sasha?”
“Not at all!” Sasha lifts her hands, as if reaching for them—Melody places her palm on Sasha’s, and Ursula follows suit. “It’s lovely to meet you, girls. Celeste is a wonderful witch and a dear friend. I hope the next three years will be filled with new experiences for both of you.”
June’s head peeks around the corner of the parlor, eyes shy. Melody catches her attention and waves. June darts away, once again vanished. Sasha sighs.
“Don’t mind her, please. She isn’t used to this many people in the house. I’m sure she won’t leave you two alone once she learns more about you!”
“She’s a darling,” Ursula says. “A little shy, maybe.”
“June doesn’t speak,” Sasha discloses. “Not since my wife passed away when June was five. It’s been two years.”
“I’m sorry, Sasha.”
“Don’t be.” Sasha picks up a plate from the coffee table to her right, holding it out. “She’s got love in her heart and that’s all that matters to me. Cookies?”
Melody and Ursula munch while Madame Celeste investigates every inch of Sasha’s body—head to toe to knee caps to elbows to nose. Her height gives her some advantages, bent at the waist and still able to examine every angle. Madame Celeste places two earth-stained fingertips to Sasha’s wrist, pauses, hums.
“Something’s off. How long have you been feeling strange, Sasha?”
“About three weeks now.”
Madame Celeste tsks. “Three weeks and you didn’t think to call for me sooner?”
“I thought it was the late nights,” Sasha admits, offering the plate of cookies to Melody and Ursula again. “I’ve been in and out of town hall nonstop dealing with the preparations for the festival.”
Ursula perks up. “Festival?”
“Yes, dear. Blackberry Thicket is overseen by a forest goddess, and it’s something of a tradition to offer her our late-autumn harvest. It’s to welcome the winter season, in the hope she’ll be kind to us in the colder months.”
Melody shifts, uncomfortable. “I don’t like winter that much. Must the goddess be appeased for the season to go smoothly?”
Sasha chuckles. “It’s more of a formality. And an excellent excuse for a town feast. Maybe you’ll glimpse her out there in the trees, one day—though she hasn’t been seen in some years. Not since I was a girl.”
“What does the forest goddess look like?” Ursula asks, scooting closer, a brand new cookie in hand.
“You’ll know when you see her,” Madame Celeste says.
Melody exhales, feeling as if she’s standing at the edge of a tall cliff but hasn’t fallen.
“The festival is months away, girls, and we have a job to do right now.” Madame Celeste pats Sasha’s shoulder, a warm smile splitting her cheeks. “Why don’t you two take a peek and tell me what you think is ailing her?”
Melody is thunderstruck. “Me?”
“You didn’t fly a hundred miles to watch me work, did you?”
“No, ma’am,” Melody assures, eager. “I’m here to learn!”
Ursula steps forward. “As am I.”
Sasha laughs, and the sound fills the whole room with sunlight. “Well, I place myself in your capable hands, girls.”