The second grain - One door closes...
She had been in a foul mood for days. As a reflection of her hurt and confusion the sky had decided to shift to a permanent shade of grey. Ever since she had put the phone down, and tried not to smash it against any hard surface, she had been storming around the shop, breaking a few items in the process.
In the subsequent days she had cringed every time she heard the loathsome door creak open in its annoying way. If she had to answer one more inquiry for those who didn’t have anything more interesting to occupy themselves with than the lives of others she was sure she would go mad. Her anger hadn’t dissipated significantly when a couple entered the shop a week later. However, her mood did change when she laid her eyes on them.
Sometimes when people’s emotional burdens were so heavy it showed in more ways than lacklustre eyes and toneless voices. Despite their holding hands and closeness of body there was a growing distance between them, one that would prove fatal for their relationship if it was allowed to grow further. Iona watched them carefully as they pretended to be interested in the crystals and trinkets in the first room of the shop. The woman didn’t want jewellery and the man didn’t want a healing crystal. In that moment, accepting the choice that had been made on her behalf was made very easy.
“Can I help ye with anything?” Iona approached the couple as gently as she could.
The couple looked between one another as couples do, as if in silent conversation. Her parents had done it many times concerning her, and so had her grandparents concerning everyone else in the family. When she was younger she thought it had been an ability only granted to those who were married, but it was only as she matured that she realised when you’ve bound your life to another’s for any length of time then conversing through mere looks was normal.
“We were told you specialised in herbal remedies,” the wife was the first to speak.
“I’m suffering from insomnia, is there anything you’d recommend?”
Lack of sleep seemed to be a common ailment in the bright, lively city she found herself in, however in this instance she feared a placebo wouldn’t be as beneficial. Iona looked carefully at the woman, beyond the dreary eyes, the skin starting to show signs of premature age, and the discolouration of her already pale complexion. All were signs of an inability to sleep, certainly, but she felt that it was a symptom rather than the cause of whatever distress the woman, and her husband, were under.
“There is a tonic that may help, but I would need a day to make it,” Iona replied, shifting her eyes carefully between the couple.
“If you follow me to the desk I’ll explain the ingredients in case you’re allergic to any.”
The invitation was an excuse to separate the two, and happily the husband obliged by stating his intention to wait outside because the smell was overwhelming him. Everyone was a cynic these days, and some were blasé enough to throw it around.
“I’m sorry, my husband is a great believer in prescription medicine,” his wife explained.
“It appears ye aren’t.”
“They help me sleep, but it’s the waking up that’s difficult.”
The world had been blessed in the development of modern medicine in more ways than one, but thankfully it would always be lacking in some areas where she and her family could fill in.
“It’s a common complaint,” Iona agreed, remembering her many experiences with insomniacs of every description back home, “may I take your name?”
“Nadia Robertson, that’s my husband Paul.”
“Does he have trouble sleeping, like ye?”
Nadia chuckled but the sound was hollow, half-hearted.
“No, his snores would wake the devil.”
The corner of Iona’s lip pulled up in a light smirk as she wrote Nadia’s information down in the customer book. From her previous inventory she knew she had most of the ingredients to make the concoction, although a few may be in need of replacing, Duncan had kept no receipts of any purchases made during his semi-disastrous tenure.
“How long have ye been unable to sleep?”
“It feels like longer than it is, but ever since,” Nadia ceased speaking abruptly, as if she had just remembered the reason but was reluctant to say it.
Something wasn’t right. Her insomnia was just a symptom, the real cause was something that weighed heavily down upon her spirit. Knowing that prying or forcing secrets from people was highly unethical, against what she had been taught, and harmful to client customer relationships, Iona had no choice but to leave the subject hanging. All would fall out in time. It always did.
“It doesn’t matter,” she smiled, “if ye come back the day after tomorrow it should be ready.”
Still lost in darkness it took Nadia a few seconds to emerge from her memories and thank Iona before she left the shop to be reunited with her equally burdened husband. Iona’s eyes continued with them until they were out of sight of the shop. A shadow hung over them, swirled between them and through them, one she had seen many times before. A shadow by the name of death.
The hospital was still the same, the staff’s faces still held the same hopelessness of life, and a few of the occupants she had seen on her last visit had disappeared. The room she had visited the last time, however, was still occupied. Before she crossed the threshold she saw the same nurse who had greeted her with a not so friendly offering of judgement the first time she had wandered in. This visit was voluntary, unlike the last one.
“You came again,” the nurse blurted with more than a sprinkling of surprise.
She didn’t sit down in the visitor’s chair because she still didn’t feel like a visitor. A gaoler may be a more appropriate word. The nurse finished her tasks without another word, and briefly gave Iona a glance on her way out. She stood at the foot of the bed staring, as if she could watch him into life.
When she was a bairn she had asked her parents if she could develop the ability to read people’s minds. Her father, always the more humorous of the two, had chuckled warmly and bent down so he was on her eye level. Now she realised it may have been a gesture of condescension, when she was no taller than his hip she had liked someone being as small.
“Maybe one day ye will,” he stated, ignoring his wife’s disbelieving snigger, “but I think ye’d be the most miserable wee beastie if ye did.”
“Because the truths that lay in people’s minds aren’t always nice ones.”
As an adult with more experience of mortals, and immortals alike, she knew that was a polite way of saying some people were just bastards through and through. She didn’t want to read people’s minds anymore, however, she did want a peek inside of the person’s laying before her, condemned to a darkness she often shuddered to contemplate.
If she could search his mind she would find many things that could help her in her new, unwanted, role. He had been close to some of the players that were beginning to gravitate towards her. His area of expertise had been reading people, a form of divination to Iona but in reality he was just more observant than she was. One look at Nadia Robertson and he would have been able to name the burden weighing her down instead of just identifying she had one. For all his faults, he had been more suited to the shop than Iona ever would be.
She knew she shouldn’t linger, or even have come in the first place. Her first visit had been ordered, this one may earn her a scolding if anyone were to find out. Iona didn’t know why she had come, perhaps for some inspiration on the cause of Mrs Robertson’s insomnia, or perhaps it was to share her bitterness at someone who had also been dealt a foul hand by her family. One way or another she was going to have to solve the client herself without any external aid, which she supposed was why she was being forced to remain in the miasmic city in the first place.
Ignoring the pang of renewed guilt she gave one last glance to the man on the bed before walking out of his room. She was under no pretence that this visit would be her last.
On her way back to the shop she popped into a café. It was unusual for her due to them being a place where gossip, pain, grief, anger, frustration and an entire myriad of other feelings lingered in the air like the strongest incense she could imagine. They were all the same, and she had avoided them since she could remember. Her father had been different and ever since his memory had snuck up on her in the hospital, she couldn’t quite shake his nostalgic presence. He had loved cafés for precisely the reason the rest of her family hated them; the coffee and cake were also big draws. Iona agreed about the coffee but still didn’t deem it worth more than five minutes in the suffocating atmosphere.
Thankfully there wasn’t a queue, considering the time of day, and she was served before the current cloud of human emotions enveloped her in a deathly embrace. As she was retrieving her purse to pay a hand came from nowhere, money held smoothly between fore and middle finger. She hadn’t noticed the stranger approach, blaming it on her determination to not be coaxed into the rapids of the other customers’ emotions. Unknowingly, the barista behind the counter took the money, assuming Iona and the stranger coming to stand at her side were together, before anything could be said or done to rectify the situation. Sighing silently, she turned around to face the mysterious man. It wasn’t someone she recognised, but he had an essence of another stranger she had met not too long ago.
“Think of it as a welcome to the city gift,” he stated, motioning to the coffee being made.
“In return for what? I haven’t done anything for you, nor do I intend to.”
She saw the corner of his lip twitch upwards, a faint sparkle in his eyes as if he wanted to laugh, but restrained himself. Where the other one had been fair, the one at her side now was darker. The hair on his head had a slight curl to it, but was easy to miss considering its short length, and where the other’s eyes had been piercing yet warm this one’s were inviting and mellow. There was too much of a family resemblance between them to deny the relation, but how close a relation was it? Immortals were overrunning the city, according to the spiritualists, but were they all from the same family, or different ones?
“I am very sorry, I haven’t introduced myself, have I?” the man turned to face her, “I’m Leif Morrison, I believe you’ve already met my brother Harold.”
Morrison. A name that was known even in the Highlands of Scotland. Real estate tycoons of the century, they owned many buildings, stately homes, and up-market hotels across Scotland, and anywhere you went their name couldn’t be missed. The world thought they were a lucky family, each generation adding to the fortune of the last, but in reality, it was the same core members giving themselves new lives, and sometimes names, every so often. Not only were they giants in the world of mortals, but they were slowly attempting to drive out the spiritualists from the city. A behemoth of force, and just as old.
“You know who I am,” she retorted, eyeing the barista who was taking her time with the coffee.
“It’s hard not to, your arrival sent rumours and whispers flying.”
And the outrage too, no doubt. Finally, the coffee was done and without another word to her unwanted companion she took the cup and headed for the door. He quickly moved to walk at her side.
“Would you mind some company back to the shop?”
“Did my brother offend you in some way?”
“That is surprising, he only speaks to offend. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Iona stopped abruptly in the street, forcing him to stop with her. She pierced him with a gaze, bore into him as if it would make him more real. How could brothers be so different? At least the other had been clear about his agenda and the reason he had for visiting, and it irked her that this one was hiding behind manners and conversation.
“What do you want?” she snapped impatiently.
“Who said I wanted-.”
Iona cut him off, “your brother wanted something, and perhaps he thought the only reason I didn’t give it to him was because of his attitude, but let me assure him it wasn’t. I won’t take sides in this petty war you’re both fighting over this city, that’s not what I’m here for.”
“Then what are you here for, Miss Tulloch?” he queried, markedly unoffended by her pertinent tone.
She was caught off guard. He had invoked her to confirm that she wasn’t in the city to support either side, and if she hadn’t been more astute, he would nearly have gotten her to give the real reason why she still remained there. He had learned all he could of her character from the brief meeting she’d had with his brother, and had nearly provoked her, with irritating ease, into giving him the information he desired.
The orders from the family tree had been very clear in their meaning, and they had expressly forbade her to become embroiled in the war for the city. Tullochs were above squabbling over brick and cement.
“That’s a good question,” she muttered before continuing on her way.
When Leif Morrison went to pursue her he found his feet would not do his bidding. Iona knew it was petty, a waste of her power, but she was determined not to be dragged onto a side. If the spiritualists saw her speaking with two Morrisons they would assume she had been lying to them, and after what she had done the last time she didn’t need to make more of an enemy out of them than she already had.
Perhaps her family was testing her endurance, how many manipulations, polite manners, begging, and pleading she could take before she finally gave in. Tullochs didn’t give in, at least not the good ones. Instead, she left Leif Morrison merged with the pavement until she was out of sight, and then he was released to do whatever he wanted, although that may just turn out to be more of his brother’s bidding.
Upon her return to the shop she decided it may be time to look into how deeply the squabbling between the two main factions ran. Duncan had managed to make friends of the spiritualists, but neither of the Morrison brothers had mentioned his name. Why had he chosen the spiritualists? Had they begged him to help them after they had learned his name? Had the Mistress given him the same empowered speech she had given Iona? Duncan was averse to writing anything down when it came to the customers he had served, but perhaps he had chronicled his involvement with the spiritualists. Finding out where, if such a place existed, would no doubt take her a while as he was not famed for his organisational abilities.
First and foremost she would need to take care of the serum Mrs Robertson had ordered for her persistent insomnia. After looking for the records that had been kept by Duncan’s predecessor, she hadn’t found a mention of anyone matching the name or prescription, and so decided the insomnia was a new occurrence, which hardly helped. The serum would send the woman to sleep, not so deep she would have trouble awaking, but the nightmares she experienced during that slumber would be out of Iona’s hands, for now.
It didn’t take her long; potions and concoctions to cure maladies such as sleep deprivation had been her bread and butter growing up, and so it left her time to have a search through Duncan’s belongings, and the shop archives. There was a room up the stairs, one of three, and it was where the books, grimoires, diaries, receipts, and even tax forms were kept, some of it in order, other bits as if a storm had raged around the four walls. The items from Duncan’s time in the shop had been banished to a corner and carefully she made her way through the small pathways towards it. He had kept little, and recorded even less. Bending down on her knees she began to take a look through some of the books that had been stacked in a tower beside a few bags containing clothes.
One was the beginnings of a customer log, which had been filled in relatively diligently in the first few pages, with each customer’s name, contact details, and prescription, sometimes his neat writing would shrink so he could write notes in the margin. A reminder here, an observation there, and often a reason or problem the customer had. Slowly as the months went on and her eyes reached further and further down the pages, the notes began to disappear, as did the prescriptions, until there was only blank lines left. He had begun with the best of intentions, and slowly as he had spent more and more time in the city, been seduced by its freedoms, its tolerance, and its liberties he had neglected his responsibilities, and even gone against the family’s orders. The city was poisonous to a Tulloch, and Duncan was proof.
The next level of the tower was a thin notepad that upon opening she found was a sketchbook. Duncan had always loved to draw, he’d even confessed once to her he wanted to be an illustrator; she could never understand why, but that was where they had always been different. As she began to flip through the pristine white pages, marked with a smudged fingerprint here from where he had been shading a landscape, or a scribbled signature at the corner of a portrait of a pretty young woman, something fell out and floated to the floor near her feet. It had landed face down and when she felt the texture on her fingertips, she realised it wasn’t normal paper. Picking it up she was greeted by an embarrassingly familiar face grinning happily back at her.
Iona couldn’t have been more than sixteen in the picture, and Duncan stood at her side holding the camera, his face closer to the lens, with his arm around her shoulders. Both were smiling, baring teeth unstained by coffee or tea, so naively young she almost chuckled darkly to herself. They both had so many things to learn.
A year after the picture was taken Iona had her first trip to the city, where that incident had happened, and Duncan was already aiming for his first derail from the family tracks. It felt as though little time had passed since Duncan had whipped out the camera and taken a silly picture, but she couldn’t remember the reason it had been taken, why they were both there, or why they were the only two in it. A random memory to her, something she’d forgot along with many other things, but he had kept it hidden in a place where he could look at it whenever he pleased. How often had he taken it out? Did this picture mean something to him that he had kept it in such a personal place?
They hadn’t had a close relationship since the picture was taken, despite being the only two family members near the same age. Life had put them on different paths, and blessed them with opposite, and at times jarring opinions. Christmases had been civil, but nothing more. Iona had stopped being the sixteen-year-old very quickly, and when she remembered back that was when they had been closest. Duncan had changed since his teen years, but not as severely or as quickly as she had. The more time she spent in the shop, orbiting around the place where he had spent a good deal of time, evoked more questions she wished to ask him. She had never felt lonely before, and she began to wonder if Duncan had felt the same thing stranded in a city that was doing its utmost to be torn between two warring factions. With no one to talk to, hear advice from, or trust, he must have felt stranded. The longer she stared at the picture the more she began to understand those feelings, the ruddy orange marks on her arms tingling in loathsome agreement. However, unlike Duncan, she did have someone close, a Tulloch like herself, and even more unlike him, she was forbidden from talking to him.
There had been no information about the ongoing war between the Immortals and the spiritualists of the city. Not even Duncan’s predecessor had been of a mind to record the goings on, if it stretched that far back. The only way to find out what she wished to know was to ask one of the participants, and since she had made an enemy of one, and was trying her utmost to make the same out of the other, she doubted either side would be willing to quell her curiosity without wanting something in return. Briefly her mind wandered to the immortal stranger she had met the day before, the one who had bought her coffee with a side of manipulation. He had seemed friendly enough, but her abrupt words, and the fact she had left him stuck to the pavement, no doubt meant that line of inquiry was scuppered before she had even pursued it. She would have to find other ways of pulling the history of the war from the shallows of time.
Thoughts pranced through her mind and she let them as she methodically crushed the sage in the pestle and mortar. The rhythmic scraping of stone against stone let her thoughts expand so she could try to come up with a solution to her lack of knowledge. Was this why her family had condemned her to the city? They didn’t have some information so they’d sent her after it like a gundog? Iona knew it was best not to think of it that way as it would only make her bitterness more pungent, but there was a niggling feeling. What was so important in the city, in this shop they had never cared about before, that they were willing to force her to remain there? Had she done something wrong recently? Were they more curious about the war than they had intimated? Or was it another matter entirely, kept from her by those who ruled?
The sound of the door opening and closing scared her suspicious thoughts away into the dark recesses of her mind where they belonged, hopefully to remain, at least for a while. Glancing towards the door she saw Nadia Robertson walk through the first room of the shop and to the front desk where she was standing breaking down the sage. The woman had been a mystery ever since she had walked in, and being envious of Duncan’s uncanny ability to read people and their problems wasn’t going to illuminate the matter further. Iona would need to find out the information the old fashioned way. By asking.
“Good morning,” Mrs Robertson said, a melancholy chime to her voice.
“Morning. Is your husband not with ye today?”
“No, he had to go back into work.”
Her eyes began to roam around, as many others did, at all the trinkets, crystals, herbs, and concoctions arranged in various ways around the shop. Iona still didn’t know which ones were fake.
“I have the draught here, would it be alright if I finished this?” Iona queried, buying some more of the woman’s time.
“Of course, what are you doing?”
“This is sage, the extract from the leaves can be used as a herbal remedy for high cholesterol. I took an inventory a few days ago and noticed we were low.”
Continuing with her task Iona thought of her next words. If she were someone else in her family there would no doubt be an artistic and subtle way to extract the information she wanted. But she was Iona, and, as everyone knew, subtlety wasn’t one of her strengths.
“May I ask if anything is bothering ye?”
Mrs Robertson’s eyes darted to Iona’s face quickly, searching for something Iona couldn’t identify. The woman looked startled and in danger of scurrying off without her prescription just to get away from the question. She was embarrassed, or maybe it was something more.
“Why?” the woman’s voice was a note or two higher than it had been before.
“Insomnia is a symptom of something, it’s not really a disease in itself. Older people get it because they’re not as active as they once were, or people with high powered jobs experience it because they can’t relax, there’s always a reason behind it, and I was wondering what yours was.”
There was a moment of silence as Mrs Robertson seemed to contemplate. There was a big disadvantage for being straightforward, and that was that not everyone appreciated it or even liked it. Being asked a direct question was not dissimilar to being cornered in a bad situation. Some people lashed out, others retreated and changed the subject. In trying to find out the cause of the woman’s insomnia, Iona may have ruined her chances of getting to the bottom of the matter and curing Mrs Robertson instead of simply treating her symptoms.
“You’ve not been here long, have you?” the older woman asked, a resigned crease to her features.
Long enough, she felt like answering. Instead she shook her head.
“My husband and I are famous in the local area,” she smiled wryly, but there was only bitterness fuelling it.
“What do you mean?”
“Our faces have been in all the newspapers, we’ve even been chased by journalists and producers of television programs.”
Iona didn’t need to ask to know that it wasn’t the kind of fame children dreamt of. This was a type that had been foisted onto the Robertsons unwantedly and had remained as their dark companion ever since.
“Our daughter went missing whilst we were on holiday, and we became the most talked about family in the city,” she laughed shrilly but Iona could see the painful tears about to spill down her cheeks.
Giving up on the sage Iona went around the counter to approach Mrs Robertson who had begun to furiously wipe at her cheeks, looking sternly at the ground as if it were at fault for her current distress.
“Come with me,” she motioned to the back room of the shop.
The small room served as a greenhouse of sorts, with bunches of herbs hanging from hooks, small buds sprouting from empty toilet roll tubes, rows of plant pots containing the more mature ones, and neat lines of flat trays that housed seeds that would be used to replenish the stock. Amongst the smell of moisture and dirt was a small corner where a kettle and teapot lived side by side. One of Iona’s predecessors had experimented with various kinds of tea leaves, growing them, mixing them together, and even creating hybrids of her own through non-natural ways. The successes were still housed in a jar. Without saying a word Iona showed Mrs Robertson to a seat and switched the kettle on to boil.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she stated earnestly.
The older woman nodded as she blinked back the tears that had begun to water over her eyelid. Guilt was easy to see, it burdened those who suffered it, and rarely did it ever lessen.
“People say that a lot now,” Mrs Robertson mused bitterly.
“I think it’s the only thing they know to say.”
Iona was sure the older woman had heard many other offers of condolence in the interim since her daughter’s disappearance. Child abductions were more common than adults cared to acknowledge, but it never ceased to shock them when it was reported. She didn’t pretend to recognise Nadia Robertson, or her husband, but missing children were always more common in cities, and journalists were more than happy to hover over the story waiting to tear into it.
“What you must think of me,” Mrs Robertson sniffed, quickly wiping away another tear.
“I don’t think anything,” she reassured, looking the grieving mother straight in the eye.
If Iona had learned anything during her life amidst her family it was that circumstances were rarely as cleanly cut as they may first appear. No one knew what went on in another person’s head, and they only had their own thoughts as a measure of what was deemed normal, and the subjects too dark to mention. The saying went that there were two sides to every story, but even that was a simplification. Depending on how many people were involved, there could be hundreds of different opinions, accounts, or statements on the same set of events. Mrs Robertson’s daughter had gone missing whilst they were on a family holiday. Her version of events would be different to her husbands, and whoever else happened to be involved.
“I must admit, I thought you just had a good poker face when I first met you. I couldn’t believe there was someone in this God forsaken city who didn’t know us.”
“I’ve not been here a week yet, so I don’t know anyone.”
Knowing of a group of people and knowing them as individuals were different; at least that’s how she justified the untruth. Faintly the kettle clicked to signal it was done boiling the water and when she looked over steam was spouting from the lid. Carefully Iona checked through the list of ingredients documented on the labels of the jars, scanning through the herbs until she found the ones she wanted. No calming mixture would be complete without the staple of Jasmine and Chamomile, although due to their taste and scent they were used in at least one or another of the tea selection. Winter cherry, better known as Ashwagandha, was listed on one in particular, and due to it not being used as a sedative she chose that one over the mixture with passionflower. After scolding the pot she placed the tea leaves in and left it sitting warmly on the counter to brew whilst she returned to Mrs Robertson, who had regained control of her emotions.
“What was your daughter like, if ye don’t mind me asking?”
“She was beautiful,” Mrs Robertson smiled reminiscently, “she had lovely long brown hair, the colour of milk chocolate. It always used to knot and tangle, which she and I both hated. Her eyes though, just like her fathers, a hazelnut brown with flecks of green, I always thought they were unusual. She was the sweetest girl, always sharing things with her friends, always excited to tell us about what she had learned at school, or a boy who had annoyed her. I miss that the most, just talking with her, or seeing her play with her dolls. It’s the simple things.”
There was a brief pause as Mrs Robertson choked on her emotions, struggling to keep them down. Grief was terrible. There was no cure, no helpful remedies that would make it disappear, and nothing save time that could ease it. Grief had many different faces, like a many-faced God, and some were harsher and crueller than others. Death, despite popular opinion, may be the tamest. There were no questions, there was no wondering or contemplating because death was permanent. It was an end to something. When a loved one went missing or disappeared, there was no end, no definitive answer. One day they were there, and the next they weren’t, with no explanation. Humans craved answers, craved knowledge, and without either they would tear themselves apart. When someone disappeared the questions were endless, the speculation sheer torture, and the lack of an explanation was the cruellest part of all.
“It’s all my fault,” she sobbed painfully.
Iona covered the older woman’s hand in reassurance. Sometimes words were not the most powerful gesture, and silence was the best approach.
“We should never have left her in the room by herself, we should have checked on her more often, I shouldn’t have listened to him when he said she’d be fine!”
She presumed that him was her husband but didn’t ask. The word if was a vicious creature. It could destroy even the strongest of sentiments, and exacerbate the bad ones. Everyone had times when they looked back on a situation and thought of things they could have done differently, or said differently, but when it was something as powerful as losing a child, a what if could cut deep.
“None of us can change the past,” Iona uttered, “but we shouldn’t use it to torture ourselves in the present. Ye’re not a fortune teller, or a seer, and so you couldn’t have predicted what would happen on that holiday.”
“Am I wrong?”
Mrs Robertson shook her head. Logic was hard to argue with, even in the depths of grief, but Iona knew her words wouldn’t alleviate the woman’s burden any. Mrs Robertson would likely go to her grave without knowing what happened to her daughter, as so many others before her. Not even the Tulloch power could recover that which had been lost so completely. Time would alleviate some of the guilt and grief, but it would always be a badly sewn up wound that the slightest tug could rip open.
“My husband and I never speak about her.”
“Why do ye think that is?”
“I think he blames me for what happened. He’s never said it in so many words, but the way he looks at me sometimes gives me the chills.”
When humans couldn’t find a solution to a problem they began to lay blame at the feet of whoever was remotely involved in the hopes it would distract them from their troubles. For just a moment they could relieve their conscience by focusing their attention on someone else equally as miserable as them. Mrs Robertson may be imagining her husband’s coolness, or she may be right, Iona was not in a position to judge, but neither was outside the bounds of reason. If Mr Robertson was here instead, he would no doubt say the same thing, all of it was just a projection of their own guilt.
“Have ye tried to speak about her?”
“I used to at the beginning, but he used to walk away, or lose his temper at me. After a while I stopped trying.”
“I don’t think he blames ye for what happened, not really. In your darker moments, don’t ye blame him?”
Recalling what she had blurted through grief a few moments previously Mrs Robertson’s shoulders sagged. Iona took it as an opportunity to pour the tea and she gently gave it to the older woman. She had been taught many times since she was old enough to walk that her power couldn’t solve everyone’s ailment, problem, or worry. Sometimes the only way to help someone was just to listen to what they had to say, with no crushing of herbs, scouring of books, or chanting of spells involved. The skill had taken a while to develop, especially through her teen years, but now that she was an adult she was well-practiced in the art of listening wholeheartedly. And that was exactly what she did for Mrs Robertson.
Iona wrapped one of the ribbons neatly around the stalk of the purple hyacinth, and the other around the white peony, the ends of either ribbon she tied in a lover’s knot. When she was finished with the strange bouquet, she chanted a few words to it from a blessing she had seen written in the corner of an old book at home, and placed it on the windowsill. It was all she could do to help Nadia Robertson and her husband. She couldn’t bring back their daughter, she couldn’t find their daughter or what happened to her, and she couldn’t force them to love one another again, but she could bless them both, and their relationship so that it had a chance of mending. As her grandparents had told her many times, blessings weren’t really magic, they were simply the hopes of the caster released into the world to make things better, or to make the Tulloch witch feel as if they had done something more helpful than just listen. They were cynical in their old age, but she still felt that one blessing was better than none, especially if it was anchored to something, like the flowers. A purple hyacinth was for forgiveness, wrapped in the ribbon representing the husband, the other was a white peony, symbolic of healing, embraced by the ribbon of the wife, and the lovers knot tying the ends together symbolised their relationship strengthening where it had been weakened by loss. Iona looked at it for a brief moment on the windowsill, the Tulloch part sneering in derision, and the other part hoping it would work.
A week later and Iona’s dark mood had rested itself spitefully on her shoulders making it hard to be civil to the customers that came in for trifling wee things. She couldn’t remember it irritating her this much at home, and she blamed the poisonous atmosphere of the city. One windy afternoon the door opened and a couple came tumbling in like the dead leaves autumn throws to the ground like confetti at a wedding. Their faces were familiar, yet they had a touch of revitalisation. The burden of losing their daughter still plagued the Robertsons, as it always would, but the distance between them had shrunk just a fraction.
Perhaps it was just her wishful thinking.
Rather than waiting outside Mr Robertson began to dawdle around the shop looking at the crystals and antiques that had been gathering dust for nigh on a decade now, Iona had checked in her boredom, whilst Nadia Robertson came up to the counter, a glimmer of a smile catching her lips.
“Good afternoon,” Iona welcomed.
“It’s nice to see you again,” she leaned over the counter ever so slightly, lowering her voice, “I wanted to thank you for the last time, it was very kind of you.”
“Don’t mention it,” she assured.
“I was wondering if you had any more of that tonic you gave me for my insomnia?”
“I can make some up for ye.”
“That would be great. It works so well, my husband even tried some. I can’t remember when we last slept like that.”
Iona smiled, glancing over to the husband who was either pretending not to hear or genuinely interested in a porcelain doll dressed in Victorian attire.
After exchanging a few more words, and stealing a few more observations of the couple, they bid farewell and left the shop, but as the door closed behind them a waft of something tickled the back of her spine.
It wasn’t the gust of wind they had let in, or the rustling of the leaves she would have to clear away but something less natural. Her eyes wandered out of the shop window until she could see the Robertsons making their way down the street. There was another figure near to the door of the shop, also looking after the couple. Her eyes fixed on the person knowing what it was, and having a suspicion about who.
Eventually the person’s gaze tore away from the Robertsons and looked through the shop window, searching for something, or someone. When he noticed her, he gave a polite smile and a small wave of his hand. She exhaled tightly.
She thought about ignoring him, especially when she thought back to their last meeting, but somehow she knew he wouldn’t leave the front of the shop until she came out. Another part of her, the more pragmatic one that cared less about her sense of pride, was curious why he would come all the way to the shop when he must know he couldn’t enter. The curiosity won, as it always did.
Stepping out from behind the counter she made her way to the door and opened it but didn’t step across the threshold, out of suspicion or something more she couldn’t quite tell. Leif Morrison also noticed her refusal and chuckled lightly.
“I promise I’m not here for revenge.”
“Then why are ye here?”
“To finish our conversation. You left me quite stuck the other week.”
“I’m not apologising,” she stated flatly as she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her.
“I would expect nothing less of a Tulloch.”
Iona uncomfortably remembered the way he had manipulated her the last time they met and swore she would be mindful of her words.
“I recognised that couple that just left,” Leif began, “their daughter went missing, didn’t she?”
She glanced at his face and thought she saw genuine pity nipping at the corners of his eyebrows as he looked down the road after them. His kind weren’t known for their compassion, having lived many lifetimes emotions tended to fade, but he seemed genuinely sorry for the couple.
“Did they ask you to find her?”
“Mortals don’t understand what my surname means, and even if they did they wouldn’t believe it. What they came to the shop about is none of your concern, Mr Morrison. Why have ye come to see me?”
“You are always very abrupt,” he observed politely so she couldn’t tell if it was a reproach or a compliment.
“Ye’re always very elusive.”
He sniggered, “Only to some. I came here to speak with you, that’s all. During our last conversation I asked why you had come to the city and you were reluctant to tell me, but I see now that you are taking Duncan’s place, although hopefully not quite as badly as he handled it.”
Duncan’s movements and decisions since arriving in the city had been questionable, and even her family didn’t know the extent of what he had done. She wasn’t about to trust Leif Morrison, but he could fill in the gaps of Duncan’s story that her family wished for.
“Ah, I see you’re curious about Duncan,” he surmised astutely, “from what you said to my brother he was under the impression he had been banished from your family, but I presume that’s also none of my concern?” he lifted an eyebrow and the corner of his lips.
She remained silent.
“Have coffee with me,” he offered, “the weather is mild, and there’s a park down the road where we can speak.”
The invitation sounded suspicious. It was clear that Leif Morrison held all of the information she wanted, and surely it was obvious to him as well, yet why was he offering to give it to her for nothing in return? The only reason she could think of was that he had been sent to persuade her to side with the immortals in the war for the city, or perhaps to bargain for one of the many relics that was kept in the shop. The only way of knowing was to agree to talk.
She nodded in agreement and motioned for him to show the way. The shop door locked behind her causing Leif to glance around curiously.
“I’ve lived here for years and I never knew it did that,” he observed amusedly.
She eyed him sceptically. It wasn’t the lock on the door that prevented him from entering, and he knew it.
Iona cradled the cardboard cup in her hands, allowing herself a brief moment to acknowledge that the other Mr Morrison had good taste in coffee; it was the best she’d had in years. He took his black, no doubt from his taste buds being the equivalent of a few centuries old and so not as sensitive to the strong flavour as hers was. Even with only one shot of espresso she still fought the urge to purse her lips at the bitterness as it assaulted her mouth. Leif Morrison had chosen the bench where they sat overlooking the regularly maintained flower garden with all of the buds and blooms one would expect to see from roses to tulips, daisies and poppies, with a few rows of plum hibiscus and scarlet carnations. There was no apparent order, no complimentary colours, it was all very stark, and even the bright colours of the flowers began to lose their identity amidst the blur.
There wasn’t many people in the park considering the time of day, and parks were rarely visited in the autumn when the temperature plummeted, and the wind came for a whirling visit. She took another sip of her coffee as she watched one woman with a pram, inside was a sleeping child with a soft white hat on, one lone sheep stitched lovingly on the fold. This coffee had been bought for her as well, despite her protest. The gesture served to make her more uncomfortable.
“They’re a bit much, aren’t they?” he motioned to the flowers.
She bit the inside of her lip, disliking the feeling of having the same thoughts as him. A quick nod was all she gave in reply before she changed the subject.
“Are ye finally going to tell me what ye want to talk about?”
He gave her a peculiar look before he sat forward, elbows on his knees cradling his coffee in his hands.
“You shouldn’t be in a hurry all the time, you know,” he commented, briefly looking at her before focusing his eyes on the spread of flowers, “even Tullochs only live once.”
She would rather be dead than admit that he made her uncomfortable, hence why she appeared to be in a hurry for the information.
“Or perhaps it’s just me. You seemed to have plenty of time for that couple earlier.”
“They needed my help,” she explained, “ye don’t.”
He smirked and sat back, pulling his full attention so he could focus it on her.
“Duncan did the same thing when he came here, if that’s what you were worried about. He helped people who went into the shop, just like his predecessor, and no doubt all the Tulloch witches for the last few centuries.”
Knowing what he had done summoned the guilt she had been trying to quash since her arrival. It had been easier to think Duncan had let the shop remain closed, shirking his duties, and instead had become a middle man in the war for the city. Instead, she was being told he had remembered his surname and continued the family tradition, so why had he derailed from the decided path?
“When…,” she trailed off, not realising she had spoken until she heard her own voice.
“When did he start dealing with the spiritualists?” Leif checked.
Concentrating her gaze on the cup she nodded briefly.
“I can’t be sure exactly, but it was quite a while after he arrived. One moment he was stubbornly neutral, and the next he was trying to play both sides.”
Iona looked at him despite herself. Had she missed a relic when she had been taking inventory? Had Duncan been stupid enough to give one to the immortals as well? A surge of panic jolted through her and the coffee felt like acid in her stomach.
“He didn’t give us anything,” Leif continued, “my brother refused to pay the price he asked for, but evidently the spiritualists did.”
“He wanted money?” she blurted.
Leif nodded and took another sip of his coffee. Iona puzzled. What would a Tulloch want with money? The family had plenty of it, taking from customers was only a formality, reassuring the world that they were a business and not conmen, but selling or loaning out powerful relics for money was unheard of. No doubt it hadn’t been mere pocket change he had asked for in return, which begged the question of what he intended to do with such large sums of cash? The Tulloch who had written nothing down, but had kept an ancient picture in a sketchbook. She couldn’t fathom what he had been trying to do.
“Then he disappeared one day, although I presume that’s your family’s doing?” Mr Morrison queried, glancing at her sideways.
She drank her coffee and said nothing. In all honesty she wasn’t entirely convinced Duncan hadn’t sold them something, and so she was eager to return to the shop to take another inventory.
“You don’t intend to become involved in the conflict?”
“That’s what Duncan said, at first.”
She looked over at him, irritated, “I’m not Duncan.”
He chuckled, “I think you’ve proved that well enough.”
Her ill-thought decision of destroying the spiritualists most important graveyard and killing one of them had slipped from her mind in the weeks she had spent in the city, but every so often she would do something to remind herself and a bitter taste swirled through her mouth.
“How much do you know of this war that’s going on?” Leif probed.
“Only that it’s ongoing, nothing else.”
“Not how it started?”
She shook her head. Mr Morrison looked contemplative but she was unsure why. He no doubt knew the ignition of the conflict very well, so why the hesitation? Did he think she would be insulted by the truth?
“Duncan didn’t tell you?”
He never told us anything, she thought inwardly but spoke nothing aloud. Family business was none of his.
“Your silence on the matter only makes me more curious,” he announced, a hint of a smile curling his lips.
She was afraid their conversation would turn into a negotiation, one side exchanging information so they could get the others’. Thankfully, Leif Morrison wasn’t in the bargaining mood.
“You met my brother Harold when you first arrived here?” he checked.
“We spoke briefly.”
Mr Morrison snickered, “yes, there’s not much more to be said. Harold is very…,” he hesitated, “strong-willed. He likes having his own way, and doing what he wants when he wants to.”
He was probably used to others letting him do it, but Iona didn’t add her opinion into the mix, especially about an immortal she had exchanged a few scathing comments with.
“It doesn’t sit well with many people, as you can imagine. We came to this city with the intention it be our home for a while. Harold had free reign in the city where we used to live, and he assumed it would be the same here. The spiritualists didn’t agree.”
“Why would they be affected by your brother’s liberties? This city is big enough for the two groups to go about their business without affecting the other.”
“You underestimate my brother’s taste,” he retorted, offering to take her empty cup.
As she lifted up her arm to place it in his hand the sleeve of her top rode up, baring the curved edges of her markings to the fresh air.
“They’re different from Duncan’s,” Mr Morrison commented casually.
She froze instinctively. Mortals couldn’t see the markings, but anyone who waltzed with any form of magic could see them as plainly as a member of her own family. It took her a while to realise she had never met an outsider who had commented on them before. Self-consciously she snatched her arm back and pulled her sleeve down over her wrist. She thought she saw him smile briefly before he walked over to the bin to dispose of the cups. When he returned he sat slowly down beside her.
“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
She nodded briefly in acknowledgement, but couldn’t bear to look him in the eye for more than a few seconds. Shaking off her discomfort she reigned the conversation back.
“You said I underestimated your brother’s tastes,” she prompted.
“Harold is uninhibited, and very exuberant when he wishes. The city may be large, but the spiritualists couldn’t escape his frivolities.”
Iona knew without asking that it wasn’t just parties, loud music and copious amounts of alcohol that had offended the spiritualists. It was the immortal’s arrogant hubris, that attitude of thinking they could get away with or take anything they wished. They bribed their way into the pockets of the powerful, they tricked their way into the good graces of the mortals, and they dodged the consequences of their actions. They slotted themselves in the highest echelons of the city so they couldn’t be touched, and live the free life they thought they were entitled to.
“The spiritualists were here before we were, but that counts for nothing to my brother. He wants to be king.”
“How did it go from ill feeling to war?” she queried.
“The Mistress,” was all he said in reply.
Iona recalled the small, pert teenager she had met during her first days in the city. She seemed sweet, but behind it was a dangerous sense of self-entitlement and arrogance.
“What did she do?”
The problem with teenagers was that they thought they were invincible because they rarely had a true sense of their own mortality, and it would be especially difficult for one who had been given the trust and power of a cult of spiritualists. She was their leader, the head of their growing group, and all of the influence had gone straight to her head.
“I see you’ve already met the young Mistress,” Leif surmised by her lack of questioning, “she thought she could remove my brother with as much ease as one of her disciples flushes away a spider. Her plan failed, but she did manage to relieve my brother of some of his closest friends, if not all of them.”
Iona found it hard to believe the young girl she had met would be stupid enough to charge headfirst into a battle with an immortal. Arrogance didn’t necessarily translate into idiocy, but perhaps the combination of her age, lack of experience, and sense of grandeur had made her senseless. It took a great deal of power to kill an immortal, levels of such magnitude that no spiritualist would ever be able to summon. For a Tulloch it would be difficult, most likely even fatal. Immortals weren’t given their name lightly.
“My brother doesn’t like to be challenged,” Mr Morrison continued, “and he wanted vengeance for his friends, he has difficulty finding good ones.”
“How many of the spiritualists has he killed in return?”
“I don’t keep count,” he shrugged.
The spiritualists weren’t powerful enough to defeat an immortal, hence why the Mistress had been so desperate to keep the Tulloch family relic in her possession. It was one of the only things in the city which would have killed Harold Morrison, along with a great many others.
“Has my story changed your mind?” he asked.
From the look in his eye she wasn’t entirely sure he was joking. Had he told her with the intention of bringing her to his brother’s side? If so he had done a terrible job. He had not asked for anything in return for telling her the truth, so why had he done it? She had been afraid of some hidden agenda he had behind his polite manner, but it appeared he didn’t have any.
“No,” she retorted flatly, standing up, “thanks for the coffee. I hope it’ll be the last one you buy me.”
“Do you think?” he raised an eyebrow, “I don’t.”
He said it with such confidence it made her teeth grind. She turned on her heel and walked back to the shop with many things to contemplate, and only some of which to tell her family.