When my father moves to sit at the head of our dining table stuffed in the corner near the bathing room, the bowls rattle. His knee bangs against the post and he glowers. After so many years, he has stopped complaining about the tight conditions. We’ve always said one day we’ll build a home big enough for our small family to accommodate us and visitors but that’s hard to do when we’re building for everyone else. It’s on the list.
My mother tries to smile as she wipes a dollop of beef stew spilled from her bowl onto the table. The window behind the table, directly to my back, opens to the dirt street and a family walking by, praising Celestine’s ability to create beauty at the tip of her fingers.
Will anyone talk about me that way? Or will they remember me as the destructive, unpredictable sister? The daughter of the selfless but also the threat. That’s the working phrase, at least.
My mother’s auburn hair hangs low in a braid, all the way to her lower back. Unbound, her hair reaches her thighs in gentle waves, like the calmest days on the ocean waters.
I inherited that gentle wave in my scarlet red locks but my hair, stubborn as it is, will never grow that long. I can barely stand to let it hang past my collarbones—the length I have it at the moment.
While I didn’t want my mother’s long hair, we share eyes—a bright shade of amber. Wide, dazzling, beautiful. They’re the highlight of our thin faces. Except every other feature on my mother’s face renders her to stand out in a crowd. Her sharp cheekbones, her freckled, honey-gold skin, and her rosy cheeks. Celestine is a mirror image of her.
The steaming beef stew is thick, crowded with vegetables and a dark broth strived from the meat chunks floating within. Besides the small piece of buttered bread, this is our dinner. It’s not nearly enough for my father to fill his stomach but he eats what leftovers we have and then some—my mother never finishes her meals so he can eat more. They’ve gotten past behaving awkwardly about it, especially since my father’s stomach rumbles so loud through the night Celestine and I can hear it through a thick stone wall.
At the table, my mother and Celestine sit at my father’s sides while I sit next to my sister, our elbows near touching in the cramped space. We’ve always been an equal family and having an empty chair across from me is useful when a conversation becomes lengthy and they haven’t excused me yet. At least I can slouch in my chair and prop up my feet until my mother notices. Normally, the recognition takes a while, and she slaps at my boots, scolding me all the while.
My father, the witch of all hearing, takes a drink from his rust-rimmed chalice. He’s a large man at a small table, in a small home, filled with even smaller women. Graham Lewis Aimrey, the foundation of us all, of this family and village, smiles over at me—a silent hint of gratitude for my decent work today with the incoming refugees. We speak little; gestures work the same.
Although my father’s mass is mainly tested in weight, I can not say the same for his height. He’s the same height as my mother and nearly as Celestine. I bring up the rear—shorter by only a couple inches. The only thing we inherited from him is his rosy cheeks. Otherwise, he’s a plain man with shaggy pecan colored hair—always unkempt. Neither of us inherited his brown eyes but the combination of him and my mother created Celestine’s very stunning hazel.
“Shall we eat?” He looks to each of us with such love in his eyes.
I’ve seen nothing else, our lives are his to protect if that time comes. Our mother would do the same. They’ve done nothing but ensure we are a solid and stable family.
No one bothers to speak, and instead of waiting for a further cue, we dig into the bowls of stew waiting for such destruction. The quickest eater of us all—and the cleanest—gets to her bowl the quickest. Stray auburn strands stick to my mother’s forehead, covered in sweat from leaning over the hot stove for so long.
The next few minutes are a mess of clattering bowls and wooden spoons and slurping as we suck down the broth and barely bother chewing on the meat before the chunks are down our throats. I rip off a corner of the bread and dip the end in the broth to earn a glare from my mother, who hates spills of any kind on the handwoven mats.
That frown doesn’t disappear until I’ve wiped the broth dripping from my chin and soaking into my dress. “For eighteen, you have no table manners,” she mocks, but can’t hold back her smile. My father does the same—but the broth trickles down his stubbled chin, too.
I raise my eyebrows at him and before he can wipe it away, my mother looks. “Don’t you see where I get it from? He’s the problem. I see; I do.” I point my spoon at her and she bats it away with a frail, yet strong hand. The two steel bracelets on her wrist clank together.
With a delicate hold on the spoon, my mother slurps from the broth without dripping once. She has always been the elegant member of the family, a trait I didn’t receive. I’ve always covered myself in dirt and wrestled with the hogs in the pen. Superstitions of my father say the trait comes along with my power.
“Tell me how your days went,” My father offers.
Celestine clears her throat, a signal she’s going first. I don’t bother objecting even though my mouth was half open already, begging for someone to ask the question.
“Mine went well. I pleased everyone with the success of my power. When flowers blossomed at my fingertips, the sight brought two of the new refugees to tears. They think I’m a miracle,” she boasts. Celestine places a hand against her small chest and bats her long eyelashes.
“I’ll need you out at the cliffsides tomorrow. We pulled up a few boulders and you’ll need to repair the growing process underneath,” my father tells her and she nods quickly. Never one to back down from a challenge, my sister, even if it’s feet away from a drop to the roaring ocean.
My father, although appreciative of her power, doesn’t like to hear about her boasting when he knows, everyone knows, that my power is nothing compared to hers. I can’t help the village in any way, despite the many options I’ve tried.
“And you, Roux? How was the new batch of refugees?” My mother turns, slurping from her spoon.
“They were shaken up but compared to recent groups, they hardly lost any loved ones so most arrived unscathed. I took many to the healers, and I had to do plenty of reassuring to an elderly couple,” I explain too quickly.
Celestine lets a sound that resembles ′ick’ rumble from her throat. “At least you didn’t have to drain your power all day. I’m exhausted.” She drags a hand across her face and my mother frowns.
“No, I didn’t have to use my power, but it’s tiring preparing a meal for twenty people and helping the healers. After that, I have to send them off to their respective places, every one of them.” I smile over at her and she rolls her eyes.
After we served the meal, I had to find homes for each refugee, either in unoccupied homes or in those already with residents. Some were gracious and opened their doors. Others...they were not as helpful.
It took one of my well-placed attitudes to get them to obey; after threatening to take their residence away entirely. The new family of refugees had looked on awkwardly and tried to behave like they couldn’t hear a word being said. But my voice was loud enough.
It was a rough day. Their journey proved difficult for the refugees with guards scouting the trails.
Many witches have risked their lives to come to this village; the group today being the largest we’ve had in months. We have a name, Arego, and we offer freedom and second chances to those that escape one of the few cruel cities in this kingdom.
We are part of the kingdom of Esaria but as a community, try to stay as distanced as we can from the castle and what lies within.
Escaping from the capital is the worst of all the communities in the kingdom; they’re constantly under the watch of the king and his castle. When I was merely a child, along with my older sister and parents, we made the tough decision to flee the capital.
The king believes all people of Esaria should be loyal to him and only him; even through all the cruelty he takes part in. The killing of lesser witches, for example. He expects all his citizens to bow down to his rule and accept the terms of their fate—as he likes to refer to their deaths as. Fate. He has little regard for any life other than his own.
This is where the escaped come. Once they’re outside the capital, they’re considered refugees of their own land. The king does what he can to hunt them down when all they’re trying to do is find a better life inside his reign. But once they come here, they’re as good as enemies in his eyes.
But he’s not the only threat. His sons, the princes, are very dangerous. Not only in their warrior abilities but in their power, too. They’re witches with supremacy in their veins and if they’re anything like their father, the princes are not kind.
The only kindness the royal family has offered us is allowing us to be here. We’re still a nuisance to the kingdom, especially for the king as he wants all to bow to him, but we’ve survived this long. It’s fair to assume he’ll throw the safety in our face, later on, years from now when Arego has expanded well beyond its limits.
“At least you get to meet new people.” Celestine scrunches up her nose.
“Both of you had tough days, we are aware,” my mother cuts in. Her palms are flat on the table like she’s ready to tower over us and stop the argument before it starts. She looks between the two of us. “We thank you both for your help. The future of this village is safe in your hands.”
I know her words are to get Celestine to stop talking. Yes, Celestine has to use her power of garden every day, and it’s taxing but spring is the busiest time of year. In summer, she only has to work once a week to heal the dying crops and wilting plants until a witch of water offers to make themselves useful.
The bowl of stew in front of me is now empty except for a ring of dark broth, carrots, and two pieces of meat around the bottom. If my mother notices I’m avoiding carrots, my least favorite vegetable, she’ll stuff them down my throat herself. “Is there anything you need me to do tomorrow?” I ask my father.
He’s in the middle of a bite but he raises his eyebrows and shakes his head. Of course not. They don’t need me to do anything. “There won’t be a new batch of refugees coming in, not for a while. We haven’t received word on anyone so why don’t you take a day off and train on the cliffsides with Bren?”
Next to me, Celestine giggles and my cheeks heat. I want so desperately to kick her in the shin but with my mother so close—
“Stop it,” I snap.
Her giggles evolve to elbowing me in the arm and I push back, stronger than her. If I could unleash my power on this room, the entire house would crumble down to rubble. The power itches at my fingertips, the need to make the ground quake, and I shove down the need. That’s why my mother orders me to wear a titanium band when I sleep.
Titanium, the only metal capable of snuffing out the magic of witches.
“There is nothing between Bren and me,” I defend. But Celestine continues to mock. “We’re friends, nothing more. Now stop it before I dig out your eyeballs with my spoon.”
Across the table, my mother gasps and places a hand against her chest. “Roux, don’t say things like that.”
Celestine pokes me in the ribs, then in my stomach, where she knows I’m the most ticklish. I turn to my mother and push my sister’s hands away at the same time. “I don’t mean it, I’m just-”
“Roux,” she warns. The way she says my name, like a threat. I shut down immediately even if Celestine’s poking is driving me nuts. The threats we throw at each other...they’re mindless. I want to tell my mother I have no intention of actually scooping out my sister’s eyeballs but a trip to my bedroom for the night isn’t a very interesting way to spend the rest of the day.
My sister, knowing my mother’s words shut me down as quick as a snap of two fingers, places a hand on my arm. “I know, Roux, I’m just playing with you. But you’re still cute together,” she reassures.
I scoff and shake my head. My father waits for an answer as to what Bren and I do in our free time, but there will not be one. We have kissed before...once, and it was just a simple peck on the lips before we parted again. That was two years ago and we haven’t tried again. Even if he had wanted to, Bren is...Bren.
“You may not see it now but Bren is the one. I think so.” Celestine pats my arm.
My mother takes the conversation spin as her cue to gather the bowls from the table. The wooden bowls clink together as she stacks them and at the sight of my carrots sitting in the puddle of broth, she frowns but doesn’t bother protesting as Celestine’s persistent teasing is enough.
In the kitchen, she pours the remnants into one bowl for my father when he gets hungry later. That stomach of his, it runs on a clock. In two hours, he’ll be hungry again and he’ll eat a full bowl before going back for another later.
As my father and Celestine start their own muttered conversation about the gardens around the village, I think of my future with Bren or anyone. This is a small village and the chance of meeting anyone other than him is hard to have hope for. Marriage; relationships—those aren’t my main focus. Right now, as I look over at my parents and my sister, I realize they’re all I need. The chair across from my own can stay empty as long as it wants.
My family, our even core of four, is all I will ever need.