It was twilight, and the fireflies were out, flickering and flashing and fading like tiny glowing spirits. A bird’s screech pierced the silent night, drowning out the buzzing of the insects.
She sat atop a throne made of books and empty bottles and all sorts of bric-a-brac, lit the incense that kept the mosquitoes at bay, and gazed out the window at the gap in the canopy of trees, where the pale skies stretched on forever, cold and empty and distant. A thin fog fell over them like a veil, but it gave no signs of lingering and she was certain it would vanish soon.
It was going to be a peaceful night.
Sophie shifted her position, and a bottle labeled "Widget and Lotus Root, shaken not stirred" in her own spiky handwriting toppled from the pile and fell with a smash on the ground, spreading a dark, shimmering stain across the wooden floorboards. A ratty meowclops with a missing ear crept up and sniffed at the puddle, interested.
Sophie looked down.
“I wouldn’t do that, Odysseus,” she told it dully.
The meowclops ignored her and started lapping at the spill with a pink tongue.
“It’s your funeral.” She shrugged.
A knock on the door. Sophie looked up. She hadn’t been expecting a visitor...
“It’s open,” she said dully, twirling a strand of emerald hair around one thin finger. There was a short pause, and then the door was pushed open slowly, and surprisingly soundlessly, by a pale hand. The meowclops hissed at the newcomer and darted away beneath a table, its single eye glowing yellow in the darkness.
Sophie did not look up until the door swung shut again with a bang, but she could see the woman out of the corner of her eye. She used the tip of her wand to push the brim of her hat away from her face.
“I thought you’d come,” she lied.
“As if I had any other choice.” The faerie sniffed, pulling off the hood of her traveling cloak. Lilac hair spilled well past her shoulders, tumbling in front of her violet eyes, and a thin crown flashed silver in the candlelight. Sophie eyed it for a minute, interested. Faerie-wrought metals. Good in the use of creating and destroying weapons. If she melted it down...
No. The Swamp Witch was many things, but she wasn’t a thief.
“There’s always a choice, milady,” Sophie said, letting her hat fall back down over her eyes.
“Some things I just can’t ignore.”
“You could if you wanted to.”
The queen looked indignant for a moment, and then decided not to argue the matter.
Instead she moved forward, skirting around the broken bottle on the floor, and sat down on a broken chair woven from reeds. She looked the Ixi straight where she imagined her eyes would be in the shadow of her hat.
“I’m sure you’re well aware what happened today.”
“Let’s pretend I’m not,” the Ixi said, picking at the frayed fingers of her gloves.
“An attempt was made on my life!”
Fyora narrowed her eyes, frowning, and crossed her legs.
“So, I’m not too certain that you had nothing to do with it.”
Sophie pulled her hat away from her eyes again, her emerald eyes wide in feigned surprise, and leaned forward.
“How did you know?”
“I recognized the writing on the bottle. 'Asp Venom, mixed clockwise under full moon; do not drink,' eh Sophie?” the queen growled. “How could you, of all people, assist Balthazar in this devious scheme?”
“Don’t play stupid, Sophie. It doesn’t suit you.”
“Fine. We made a deal...” the Ixi mumbled, looking slightly uncomfortable in the way the conversation was turning.
“So you admit it.”
“I didn’t know that he was going to try to poison...”
“You did. You know exactly what he was going to do. What did he offer you?”
She crossed her arms, suddenly indignant. “That’s not your business.”
Fyora scowled, but then she looked away and said, “You’re right. It’s not.”
The glow of the candles cast her face into shadow, and for a moment the witch remembered that the faerie queen was no longer as young as she had once been.
There was a long pause.
“Are you arresting me?” Sophie asked.
“But you aren’t. Why?”
The queen was silent.
Then she said, “You’re a strange one, Sophie. I don’t think I’ll ever understand you, or your sense of right and wrong, nor why you associate equally with both friends and enemies, or why Ilere seems to resent you so much.”
“Knowledge is power,” Sophie said simply.
The queen frowned.
“Is that all?” the witch asked, uncaring, sounding suddenly bored with the small matter of an attempted murder. A meowclops sprang onto her lap, pushing his furry head beneath her gloved hand. Obligingly she scratched his ears, and he purred.
Fyora’s eyes flashed with anger, and she looked for a second like she was going to strike the witch across the face, but the moment passed and instead she simply nodded.
Yanking the hood of her traveling cloak back over her head almost violently, the queen was halfway out the door before she turned back and said in a voice quiet with rage.
“But I want to know, Sophie, what manner of treasure is worth another’s life?”
Sophie closed her eyes and did not respond.
She heard the door slam shut, and she saw a purple flash of light behind her closed eyelids that indicated the faerie’s departure.
The meowclops hissed angrily as she brushed him off her lap. He sprang down and ventured off in search of another source of entertainment, treading in the spilled potion and leaving a trail of shimmery paw prints across the shack.
Sophie opened her eyes. She reached into one of the pockets of her skirt and withdrew a locket on a silver chain, holding it up so it caught the quickly fading light. The design on it twisted and curled around the heart-shaped pendant like the vines that hung in her swamp.
She dug one fingernail into the crack and prized it open. The tiny picture inside, faded and worn was one of happier days. Even now Sophie was still a little shaken by the blind trust that shone so obviously in her younger eyes. Who was she, back then?
She glanced over her brothers, a slightly happier Bruno before he became... that thing, grinning for the camera, and her two parents, smiling and oblivious in their wonderful little world.
She snapped the locket shut, and smiled.
“Some lives are worth more to me than others,” she whispered.
The meowclops named Odysseus yowled as his tail suddenly twitched and grew scales and fangs and leathery wings and hissed at him. He darted out from beneath the table like a furry cannonball, snarling and scratching at the offending thing.
The witch smirked, and with a wave of her hand, returned the tail to its usual bushy self. Odysseus eyed it suspiciously, wondering if he had killed it or if it was playing dead.
“That’ll teach you to drink spilled potion.” His mistress laughed.
The candles flickered and finally burned themselves out, casting the shack into darkness save for a silvery glow that shone through the cracks in the slatted roof.
It was going to be a peaceful night.