“What do you mean, you nominated me?” I held my breath.
“Oh, dear. Shouldn’t I have?”
Lydia Whitmore, a dear old witch who lived about ten minutes from me, was on the other end of the phoneline. I could imagine her startled expression. With her kindly smile and snowy hair, always secure in a precise bun, her looks epitomized those of the cookie-baking granny. She also cornered the local market on being the goody-goody, saccharine-sweet variety of witch—what society’s more mundane humans wanted all us witches to be.
She had called to inform me that the Witch Elders Council had announced their plans to find a replacement for Vivian Diamond, the Cleveland Coven’s high priestess who had mysteriously gone missing.
Not that it was a mystery to me: I’d handed Vivian over to the vampire she’d betrayed. Chances were she’d be missing a very long time.
To determine the new high priestess the Council was, according to Lydia, planning a formal competition called the Eximium. Lydia had, incredibly, nominated me as a competitor.
“Lydia, I don’t want to be the high priestess.”
“Pshaw and gobbledygook!” Lydia said. “You’re perfect for it, Persephone! Knowledgeable, experienced, personable. And such a charming smile, dear. You’d make a fantastic high priestess.”
“I’m flattered,” I said, rubbing my brow, “but I can’t do it. I wouldn’t have time right now.”
“Oh, that’s right! You have the child, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. My new role as foster mother wasn’t the only reason I had no intention of getting involved with the Council, but maybe it would be enough of an excuse to dissuade Lydia. It had only been three weeks since Lorrie Kordell, a wærewolf who used to kennel in my basement during full moons, was murdered. Her daughter, Beverley, ended up with me. We’d had the funeral a week and a half ago, and Beverley started school that following Monday. The legal gears and wheels to officially establish me as Beverley’s guardian had been set in motion and we were just starting to get a sense of what “normal” was going to be for us. Beverley needed stability and the security of a routine to ground her despite all that was new in her life. “I don’t want to start anything that will take more of my time from Beverley right now.”
“How’s she doing, poor thing?”
“She’s still grieving, and she will for a while, but she’s tough stuff. We’ll make it.” I truly cared for Beverley. When her mom got a job in the city and quit kenneling here, I’d missed more than just the popcorn and Disney nights I’d shared with the kid. “So, Lydia,” I asked, intentionally changing the subject, “how’d you end up nominating entrants for this…eggzemmyoom thing anyway?”
“Because I’m the oldest!” Lydia laughed. “WEC wants savvy, smart, and pretty young women as covenheads nowadays, what with the internet and media always poking around the high profile urban covens.” She pronounced the acronym for the Witch Elders Council as weck, like a kid who can’t make R sounds saying wreck. “They know I deserve the authority, but can’t keep up with the social scene. This is their way of coddling me for what I can’t do.”
Over the last few years I had become friends with Lydia, who happened to be the previous owner of my old saltbox-style farmhouse. She’d sold off pieces of her land and bought a double-wide, then stuck the For Sale by Owner sign in the front yard. We met shortly after I called the number written on the sign. One-level living suited her knees better, she’d said. The only downside, according to her, was “trading the charm and earthy smell of a root cellar for a sterile, wire-shelved pantry.” A kitchen witch, she canned the vegetables she grew in her garden and made the best black raspberry jelly I’d ever tasted, period. When she shared her scrumptious goodies, they always came with a little checkerboard gingham ribbon tied around the neck of the Mason jar. I was certain that fabric came from her worn-out dresses. She could’ve walked onto the set of Little House on the Prairie and assumed a place as an extra without being questioned. All she lacked was a sunbonnet.
“I tried to tell them from the start that Vivian was a no-good hustler,” she continued. “I tried to stop her from being in Cleveland’s last Eximium, but my objections went unheard. After she reconfigured the membership into nothing more than a who’s-who list of wealthy local socialites, though, they understood.”
“I know.” Lydia didn’t know the half of it. Vivian had done wrong by the coven, but that was only a minor part of her no-goodness. Vivian not only set me up and used me in attempt to gain an Elders Council seat but she had murdered Lorrie and been responsible for the near-death of Theo, another friend of mine. That’s why I’d turned her over to the vampire.
Truthfully, it wasn’t like I could have kept him from taking her, so “I turned her over to the vampire” may be overstating my role in the situation.
My part of it aside, the vampire had taken her and she hadn’t been seen since. Now, Hallowe’en was coming and there was no high priestess to conduct the all-important annual Witches Ball. It was the single biggest fund-raiser of the year for the coven and its largest publicity opportunity. Having a stand-in or temporary priestess just wouldn’t suffice—or so Lydia claimed the Elders had said.
“I wonder what happened to her,” Lydia mused.
“I think she disappeared after she dropped Beverley here. Maybe the role of godparent was too much for her.” That was the angle the media had taken. Any story that left me out of the loop was a good one and I was sticking to it.
“Will you adopt her, Persephone?”
“Sure, if she wants, but I think we’ll just keep me as the legal guardian. She needs to settle in and just be a kid.”
“See, dear, you’re such a responsible soul! You should be the one to lead the coven, not a stranger to the area. You know Clevelanders are slow to warm up to outsiders—and I don’t want another fast-talking swindler misusing the privilege.”
Vivian had carried a vampire’s mark—I call it a “stain”—and that should have prevented her from attaining any authority in the first place. Under the influence of a vampire and in authority over witches? Totally bad idea. Vivian had pulled it off only because of a magical stake she created to keep her vampire master at bay. Now, due to her involving unsuspecting but responsible little ol’ me in her plot, the stake was destroyed, she was with the vampire, and I, too, carried a nefarious stain.
Ethically, I didn’t deserve being high priestess any more than Vivian had, but that wasn’t something I wanted to advertise. “Lydia, honestly, I don’t want the authority.” Not the whole truth, but not a lie, either.
“That’s exactly why your name’s in. They asked me to nominate someone local from the coven to take over and I gave them your name—”
“But I’m a solitary! I may be local, but I’m not part of the coven. I never even attended the esbats, let alone the sabbats or—”
“You’re still the best person for the job, Persephone Alcmedi, and if you want out, you’ll have to come to the Covenstead and formally decline it. Good day.”
The phone went dead in my hand.
So…if she didn’t get her way, dear old granny-witch was going to be difficult.
It’s always the sweet ones you have to watch out for.