Bella let the rain drench her, cloth and lace sticking to her skin. She heard the droplets as an orchestra, each component pattering that soft expensive tune, despite the chill. She grinned, raising her hands to the sky, golden locks plastered to her eyelashes.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ the girl behind her said, dry in her uniform beneath a yellow umbrella. ‘You don’t have time to change, it starts in fifteen minutes.’
Bella didn’t move. The empty city’s reflection bounced in the puddles, dancing to the rainfall’s tune. ‘We could just not go.’
‘You know that’s not true.’
She did know.
She turned to the girl behind her without a shiver. They stared at each other for a moment, before holding out their hands in unison. The rain licked their fingertips, but there wasn’t a flinch between them.
‘We get our keys and get out. Three.’ Bella began through gritted teeth.
The umbrella girl didn’t move her eyes. ‘Two.’
The wet cloth grew cold against Bella’s skin as she hesitated. How could someone be unsure on such a gorgeous stormy day, one with more passion than any blue, cloudless sky? If it worked, the two of them could gather themselves with books and a warm cocoa, watching the violent flashes dance outside as the rain begged at their windowsill, unburdened by the call.
She cleared her throat. ‘One.’
They plunged their palms into the ground, fingers clenching in the water. The puddles around them began to freeze, coiling into perfect circles of ice across the concrete.
The air was cold.
‘Ready for transmutation Maybell.’ Bella said, throat hoarse. She shook her hand three times, the bells around her wrist ringing.
‘Ready for transmutation, Bella.’ Maybell repeated the action.
Their actions were stiff, legs dragging at each step. Bella glanced at her partner; whose long dark hair had begun to miserably entangle with her sides. Lighting struck near their feet, but neither had enthusiasm, so they couldn’t even steal it from each other. The dance they were so used to had become lazy and heartless, but the end result was the same. The summoning circles were complete.
‘For it is a witch’s right to be free with their magic, but always to attend a calling.’ Bella mumbled, already tempted to wipe the cold water from her hands.
Maybell looked away from Bella. ‘Take us to the witches’ council.’
They chimed the bells on their wrists together, and they were there. There, the white room so big you could hardly see the edges, held up by the occasional pillar, decorated in golden fillings. Above, a painted blue sky, with only the sun watching, no clouds.
Maybell closed her umbrella.
‘Just keep your mouth shut.’ She said.
Bella gave a single nod of acknowledgement.
The two of them bundled their skirts in their hands and hobbled over the titles, a little faster than they should, but it was okay. It wasn’t unusual for a witch to be nervous for these things. They had discussed the plan earlier, an idea made over service station coffee: it had to go well.
Bella bumped into one of the taller guards, dressed fully in white. She covered her mouth in horror, and bowed a few times in apology. The guard raised an eyebrow, but didn’t move her gun.
Bella could hear her heart doing backflips already. She pulled her partner aside by her sleeve, desperate. ‘Let’s just go home. We’ll put on the kettle and-‘
‘You know we can’t do that.’
The remains of Bella’s rain dance had begun to leave a puddle on the floor. She bowed her head. ‘Please.’
‘Bella. They’re just old folks with masks on. Nothing to be scared of.’
‘You know that’s bullsh-‘
The tall guard prodded at the air, gesturing that the room was ready for them.
Maybell smiled and took a breath. She pushed the door open and stepped inside. Bella went straight after. It was less threatening to the Maestro if witches did not walk in together.
But to Bella, each step was like walking through tar.
The silence of the room with the big long table, the feeling of the old scratchy velvet cushions against your legs, the cold silver in your palms, the turning of heads as you walked in early, or late, or on time, it didn’t matter when, it was all the usual.
Maybell sat parallel to Bella, and they watched each other as they folded napkins on their laps.
The room remained silent.
The head of the table, face hidden by a large brimmed hat, raised her glass, and ran her finger around it, causing a ringing to fill the room. Maestro.
The witches of the table raised their hands in response, and jingled the bells around their wrists violently, until the table head raised her hand again, and the silence returned.
‘Thank you pets.’ The Maestro cooed. Following her movements with eerie accuracy, the witches took forks in their hands, and began to eat as she did. Only two of them did so with caution.
Bella felt her stomach churn. She pretended she wasn’t soaking the chair, or the table cloth. The witches beside her couldn’t stop their eyes straying to their shivering counterpart, but they knew. They all knew.
Don’t say a word. She hoped they were thinking.
That’s against protocol. She knew they were thinking. She raised her glass to her lips and tried to steady her shaking hand. Out of rhythm, but that was ok, it wasn’t unusual for a witch to be nervous of these things.
‘Bella.’ The head of the table said.
The glass in Bella’s hand shook more. ‘Yes Maestro?’
‘Anything to report from city A?’
Maybell glared at Bella from across the table. Hand gesturing silence.
Bella bowed her head. ‘No Maestro. No conflicts. No independent witches have been located.’
The Maestro stared at her for moment, then gestured for the witch next to her to continue the report.
Bella clenched at her chest and returned her glass to the table.
The collective of witches clicked their fork against their glasses, indicating the next speaker.
‘No independent witches in quarter 3B,’ the witch beside her finished. ‘All conflict eliminated.’
Conflict. Witches without Maestros. Witches with their own keys, with grimoires. Bella tugged at her bells, sweat beading through her rain covered skin. She slid a steak knife into her sleeve, and glanced again to the top of the table.
‘Haha!’ The Maestro grinned. ‘Are we not lucky to be part of The Free Witches Union? What an honour to feel safe in our homes, to practice alchemy freely.’
The witches of the table gave a collective ‘Aye’.
They jingled their wrists again.
With a sweeping movement, the Maestro stood up and put her veil over her shoulder. ‘Meeting dismissed.’
Bella and Maybell stared at each other. This early?
A single yellow umbrella steadied Maybell as she pushed herself from the table and stood straight, facing the Maestro with a false confidence that reached her eyes. ‘Maestro, we request a waiver on our membership.’
A table of steady eyes turned to face her, expressionless.
‘What?’ The Maestro said.
Maybell looked down, shivering. Bella stood from her place across the table, still soaked. ‘It’s a simple request. You said joining you was voluntary and we want our keys back.’
A few nervous jingles echoed across the room and the table filled with chatter. Each of the witches shuffled their chairs back a little, as if the two-standing possessed something disgusting and horrid. The Maestro tapped her glass. The room returned to silence.
‘Why would you want to leave?’ The Maestro said, voice soft.
The witches at the tables shook their wrists, they were like cautious rattlesnakes, coiled to strike. The two girls looked at each other, blue eyes luminous in the harsh white light. They kept their mouths shut.
‘Or is it… you’ve been practicing magic on your own. You don’t feel you need us to protect you anymore. Well, I don’t think that’s wise. I don’t think that’s wise at all.’
‘We just want our keys back. We won’t bother you anymore.’ Bella looked away.
The Maestro’s mouth twitched upward. ‘No.’
The bright sun on the ceiling’s painted eyes gored into them, even the decorations were judging. The cloudless sky, the never-ending blue, much less freeing than a thunderstorm. Maybell opened her umbrella.
‘What do you mean no?’ Bella said.
The Maestro turned slowly but exited the room in swift silence. It is easier to defeat someone when there is no struggle, no matter which side you are on.
As the rest of the witches filtered outside, Bella and Maybell stood distraught, mouths agape.
There was no sound but the dripping of Bella’s clothing on the floor. The falling droplets echoed across the room, mocking her.
If not for the steak knife in her sleeve, Bella might have felt hollow.
She rushed outside, leaving a flailing Maybell confused but nervous, and rightfully so. Bella pushed the other witches aside, letting them tumble like cloth raindolls without string, onto each other, sprawled across the cold tiles, as if they were puddles, the remnants of rain itself.
Nothing but a blur of movement and anger, the steak knife plunged into her Maestro’s back. It fumbled through the coat, ripping through cloth and buttons, but it seemed the Maestro was too quick.
A bloodless knife tore away.
The Maestro stilled, grabbing for her cane, but Bella knocked it from her hands, stabbing again. Not one person rose, but their mumbles were a collective echo.
The knife did not reach flesh.
Instead it tore off the coat that hid the Maestro so well.
There stood a bird cage, on legs without its mechanics. Locked inside, a single nightingale spoke with the Maestro’s voice. Beneath it, on the floor of its cage: every witch’s key sat in a jumble, so many that the cage might burst. The Maestro snapped at any reaching hand and the bitterness in her eye did not leave as the other witches helped her false face upward and back into place.
Bella’s face twitched.
Maybell closed her umbrella.