Chapter Twenty: Darren Doesn't Scurry

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The senior ball after party Safiya had invited Delali to was an unsurprising mess of people doing too much in too small a space, something she’d come to expect from college parties. All of the furniture had been piled in a corner to turn the living room into a makeshift dance floor, and the windows were foggy with condensation. All around Delali, people grinded and danced against one another, jostling the few who stood still or tried to push their way through the thick crowd to get a drink or find the bathroom.

“Dela!” she heard over the noise. Delali stood on her toes, searching for whoever had called her name and seeing Safiya huddled in the corner by a thin strip of open window. She was surrounded by a group of her track teammates and some guys Delali vaguely recognized, but couldn’t name.

“Hey!” she yelled as Delali approached. She wrapped her arms around Delali’s neck and planted a sloppy kiss on her cheek. “You came!”

“Well yeah,” Delali said. “I said I was going to.”
Safiya laughed. “Yeah but everyone knows you’re a flaky ass bitch,” she said as she pulled away.

“Fuck you,” Delali said with a smile, even though she had seriously considered flaking again. When Safiya texted her earlier in the week about the post senior ball festivities, Delali had been totally into the idea. She was fresh from the long weekend she’d spent in Montauk with Adrien, getting centered before filming started while Adrien decompressed from his busy Colorline schedule. But once she’d gotten back to the city, things had ramped up so quickly that she’d completely forgotten her promise to show up. It wasn’t until she was in her bedroom just hours ago, getting ready to take a nap, that she remembered. A calendar alert had popped up on the screen of her phone as soon as she’d worn her bonnet, reminding her to leave her apartment so she could meet Safiya on campus at 9:00. She’d thought about texting Safiya and telling her she was “sooooooo tired” from working all day—especially since she had to get to The Gathering tonight as well—but instead she’d forced herself to rally.

When Delali had gotten to Phillips Hall, she realized that she’d never actually been in the seniors’ only dorm as a senior—only ever as an underclassman going to her older friends’ parties, and now as a drop out, sneaking in with a crowd of drunken students because Safiya hadn’t replied to her text to asking her to come down and sign her into the building. All around her, seniors in their gowns and suits swarmed around the building’s lobby, laughing, screaming, and recounting stories from their swiftly-ending college years. Delali had looked down at the plain red tank top she’d tucked into her highwaisted shorts and frowned, feeling out of place. A thread of wistfulness pulled at Delali’s stomach, and even as she’d piled into the elevator with a group of students, she felt that she wasn’t really with them, that she was an outsider looking into something she wasn’t a part of. For the first time since committing to Sit Awhile, she wondered—had she made the right decision in leaving the university? Perhaps she should have tried harder to figure out a way to stay, to finish her final semester and graduate with her class.

Safiya laughed again and pulled at the hem of her dress. “I’m just being honest.”

Delali ignored her, instead admiring Safiya’s look. She was still wearing her senior ball outfit: a plain LBD and a pair of metallic rose gold stilettos. Delali had voted against the dress when Safiya texted her dressing room pics of it, but in person, she had to admit the body-hugging off-the-shoulder style did look good. Safiya’s skin was shiny with sweat and humidity, and the sheen, along with her finely blended highlight, made her look dewy and fresh. The end of her yaki ponytail danced between her shoulder blades. “You look amazing,” Delali told Safiya.

Safiya nodded. “Facts,” she agreed with a smug smile. Delali rolled her eyes despite her grin, almost overcome by the flood of emotion she felt. She hadn’t realized how much she missed her friend until just now, and she regretted not making more of an effort to come to senior week events as she had promised.

“How was senior ball?” she yelled as the volume of the party rose.

“Dope!” said Safiya. She was wasted: she punctuated the short sentence by grabbing her cup off the window sill, downing her drink, and theatrically shaking her ass to whatever Migos song had just come on. “Do you want a drink?” Safiya asked, and just as she did, Darren sidled up beside her, holding two Solo cups.

“Hey! ”  Safiya exclaimed. “Look who decided to grace us with her presence.” She held her arms out like a model on The Price is Right. Delali forced a smile, although she really wished Safiya would stop making her feel bad about how rarely they got to hang out.

“Hey!” Darren said. He wrapped one arm around Delali’s shoulders in a half hug, careful not to spill the drinks. “We weren’t sure you’d show.”

Delali raised her eyebrows. We? She looked from Darren to Safiya, wondering if there was something she’d missed during her months off campus. She knew that Darren and Safiya were friendly, but not so friendly that they really talked—let alone talked about her.

“Well,” Delali said. “Here I am.”
“Yes!” Safiya yelled, pulling Delali into another hug. “Thankfully.”

Darren laughed, then offered Delali one of the cups he’d carried over. “You want?”
Delali eyed the cup skeptically. “What is it?” she asked. There was a giant vat of...something on the kitchen counter, and she wanted absolutely no part of it.

“Just a rum and coke.” He took a long sip and let out an exaggerated ‘ahhh.’ “There,” he said. “Totally safe.”

Delali took the cup from him with a smile. “If that whole Microsoft thing doesn’t work out, you could totally get a job as a food taster.”

“Thanks for the career advice,” he said sarcastically.

“What are you doing here anyway?” Delali asked. She rarely saw Darren out at parties.  “I thought you didn’t really go out.”
Darren laughed—but Safiya laughed harder. “This is his suite,” she said.

“Seriously?” Delali asked. She looked around at the sweaty tangle of bodies, the row of empty alcohol bottles decorating the window sill, and the couples pressed against the walls.

“It’s senior spring,” he said, shrugging. “We—my roommates and I—figured, why not, and just started throwing these parties every weekend. They started small and just got bigger.”

“Thanks to me,” Safiya said, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder.

“Yeah,” Darren said, laughing. “We never could’ve gotten to this point without Saf’s plug in the StudyingWhileBlack GroupMe.”

“Oh my Goooooodddd,” Safiya said. “That group is a fucking disaster.”

Delali blinked at them, confused, but smiled, wanting to be in on the joke. “What’s the StudyingWhileBlack GroupMe?”

“I....don’t even really know,” Darren said before turning to Safiya, who giggled. “You’re more plugged in than I am,” he emphasized, shooting her a teasing look over the rim of his cup, and Delali knew she was missing something.

“It’s this insane group chat with every black person on campus in it,” Safiya said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh,” said Delali, thinking ‘except me.’ “Ok then.”
“It’s silly,” Safiya said. She swiped Darren’s drink from off the windowsill and took a sip.

“Hey!” he said, but Safiya ignored him, sticking out her tongue before adjusting her dress again.

“I gotta go to the bathroom,” she said. She bumped Darren with her hip as she passed him, and again, Delali looked curiously at them, wondering if she was imagining things or if there really was something between him and Saf. The last time she and Safiya had talked about guys, Safiya had mentioned she was seeing a sad NYU boy who wanted her to star in his webseries, and the last time they’d talked about Darren in particular had been the senior night where Safiya tried to convince Delali to hook up with him in the stacks. But that senior night had been months ago...was it possible Darren and Safiya had started hooking up since then? Then Delali realized the better question: was it possible that Darren and Safiya had started hooking up since then—without Safiya telling her about it? Although Delali wanted to say no, she couldn’t be sure. She found Safiya’s head in the crowd as she pushed her way to the bathroom, realizing that there was a way she could be sure.

The rum made it harder for her to concentrate, but she quickly felt the now-familiar pull in the back of her mind as Safiya’s thoughts filtered in. ...Looks really good tonight, she heard. Dela’s not into him anyway, so maybe he’d be down? Seriously how long does it take one person to pee?

Suddenly, it came to Delali how invasive this was, and she closed her eyes, shaking her head as an involuntary shudder rolled through her body. The door between her head and Safiya’s closed, and she felt a warm hand on her forearm.

“Delali,” she heard. Delali opened her eyes. Darren had moved closer to her, a look of concern on his face. “Are you okay?”

Delali swallowed thickly, nodding her head. “Yeah, sorry, I’m fine,” she said, even though she felt queasy.

Darren didn’t move his hand. “Are you sure? You look kind of sick.”
“Yeah I’m fine.” Delali took a step back to let a girl pass between her and Darren. “Just had a random question come to mind,” she said, watching as Safiya disappeared into the bathroom.

“Shoot,” said Darren.

Delali downed the rest of her drink and looked up at Darren. In the dramatic lighting (only a half-working string of rainbow Christmas lights illuminated the dark room), his already impressive cheekbones looked even sharper, and his eyes shone invitingly. “Did you senior scurry?” she asked. Darren let out a loud laugh, taken aback.

“Wow,” he said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “That is not what I was expecting you to say. But no, I didn’t scurry,” he added with a chuckle. Senior Scurry was an app some kid in the engineering school had built a few years ago to facilitate urgent I’m-never-gonna-see-you-again second semester senior hookups. Delali wasn’t totally clear on all the details, but from what she knew, people put in the names of classmates they wanted to hook up with before graduation, and only saw who put down their name if there was a match.

“Sorry, I know, super random,” Delali laughed. “But I was just wondering, you know, thinking about all the senior stuff I missed out on. Why didn’t you scurry?”

“I…” Darren trailed off, glancing away from her. Delali could see that he was thinking something through before he spoke again. “There isn’t really anyone I want to match with,” he said finally. “At least, not anyone that’s still a senior.” He met Delali’s eyes, giving her a cautious smile. Delali returned it. Darren’s face was so close to hers, Delali could’ve eliminated the space between them with just the slightest movement. But Darren beat her to it, closing the gap. Their lips met in a sloppy, drunken way, and Darren pushed her gently against the wall, pressing his body against hers. There was an eagerness to Darren’s movements that made Delali feverish, a warmth that had nothing to do with how many people were crowded in the small room. His hands slid from her waist down to her hips, migrating towards her ass, and then something odd happened. Delali saw images in her head, like the first time she’d read Adrien’s mind, and they were of her and Darren, right now, at this party, entwined and up against a wall. She opened her eyes, jarred by the sensation, and pushed Darren away. Safiya had just left the bathroom, her makeup gleaming with the fresh reapplication. She stood still at the edge of the crowd, watching Delali and Darren. Delali looked away.

Darren moved his lips from her neck to whisper hotly into her ear. “Do you wanna go back to my room?”

Delali looked up at him, thinking first about Safiya, and then remembering that Vic and Abbie would get to her apartment in just over an hour. “Actually…” She unwound her arms from Darren’s neck. “I have to go,” she said. “I’ll text you.” She slid away from him and headed toward the door, pretending not to see Safiya as she escaped into the hallway.

Delali’s Zoom was waiting for her when she got outside, and she nimbly side-stepped groups of drunken almost-grads to climb into the back seat. Her mind was quiet for the first half of the drive, but as the car glided over the Williamsburg Bridge, Delali couldn’t stop replaying the way Safiya’s face fell when she saw her and Darren. She couldn’t decide whether what she’d just done was unimportant girls-will-be-girls shit or a major moral failing. The feeling in the pit of her stomach suggested it was the latter, but she pushed the thought away. Safiya didn’t know Delali had read her mind, so maybe she just thought Delali had finally come to a decision about Darren after wavering back and forth for months. She shot Safiya a text with a lame explanation, grimacing when “Read at 10:04 p.m.” popped up immediately but no response followed. Her phone buzzed with several messages from Vic and Abbie, but Delali didn’t read them. If she was going to make it to The Gathering tonight, she needed some time to herself.

A little while later, Abbie twirled before the full-length mirror in Delali’s cavernous closet. She walked out into Delali’s bedroom, waiting for Vic and Delali to comment on her gown, but they both had their heads bent toward their phones. “AHEM,” Abbie said, loudly.

Delali looked up first, forcing herself to close her conversation with Safiya. The message she’d sent on her way home was still the most recent in the chat. “Oh my God,” she exclaimed. “That looks so fucking good on you!” She turned to Vic for confirmation.

Vic took a break from the long consoling text she was writing to Tatiana and looked at Abbie. She did look good in the sleeveless Rami Kadi gown she’d chosen from the rack in Delali’s closet. Abbie had been inching further and further away from her cornball looks for months now (thanks to her bank account or her new man, Vic wasn’t sure) and this dress made her look like she had reached her final form. “You do look amazing,” she agreed.

Abbie admired her reflection, then caught Vic in the background, still tapping at her phone. “Okay, enough of the texting!” she said, walking over to Vic and reaching for her phone. “You’ve been obsessed with that thing lately.”

Vic held her phone above her head, jumping out of Abbie’s grasp, even though she knew Abbie was right. In an attempt to make up for the bakery incident, Vic had been an extra-attentive girlfriend over the past few weeks, working overtime to rebuild Tatiana’s waning self-esteem and souring outlook on life. She spent her evenings cooking Tatiana’s favorite foods, did Tatiana’s laundry in her apartment's washer/dryer, and paid for the Süpers Tatiana took to her innumerable fruitless job interviews. Vic’s transformation had had the opposite of her intended effect, and Tatiana was in worse condition than before.

Even though they had made up shortly after the Bakery Blowout™ (as they jokingly called it now), Tatiana’s unemployment put a strain on their relationship. She brought up the bakery more now than when she’d worked there and constantly thought about what she could’ve done to make Gio hate her enough to fire her that day, and so cruelly. She spent her free time clicking through pictures of the bakery (including the staff photos, which now listed Rose as sous-pastry chef), and wondered aloud how someone who had gotten a near perfect SAT score had ended up in her situation.

It had all become too much, and Vic was tired of the way the massive secret between them made it impossible to truly reconcile. Earlier today, after receiving yet another listless goodbye kiss from Tatiana, she decided that as soon as she got back from The Gathering she'd come clean about everything— her powers, the meetings with MJ, and, most importantly, her involvement with Tati’s firing. All this time she'd treated the fact of her being a witch like it was something she needed to hide, but what was the worst that could come out of her telling someone she trusted that she had magical powers? Her only fear was that Tatiana would go into cardiac arrest from laughing too hard. Vic hit send and handed her phone to Abbie, who was holding her hand out like the irritated elementary school teacher she was. Delali walked over and dragged Vic up by her arms.

“C’mon,” she said. “Whatever problems you have with Tatiana can wait. Choosing a dress for The Gathering cannot.” They were cutting it close enough as it was. With all that was going on in their personal lives, the three of them hadn’t been able to get together and look at the selection of dresses Delali’s stylist, Kamali, had pulled for them until now, just hours before the event. She'd been confused by Delali’s waffling description if the event, as well as her refusal to call it by name. “A gala...formal but outdoors...not to raise but kind of political. And I'll need a range of sizes, too. I'm going with friends.” Kamali had ended up pulling almost a hundred looks for the girls, organized by size and length.

Vic sighed as she looked at the array of gowns, remembering the first time she’d seen the Clarke Stein closet. As much as she didn't care about all of Delali’s Hollywood shit (it sounded more like a headache than a good time), she was definitely jealous of her access to designer clothes. She started flipping through the rows of dresses, mentally mourning the fact that even though all of the dresses would look good on her, she could only choose one.

“At least you know where you stand with Tatiana,” Abbie interjected, unpacking her huge hair and makeup trunk. “I don’t even know what Faizan and I are doing.”

Delali suppressed a groan. “Okay, first of all, you both deserve to be ignored right now.” Both Vic and Abbie scoffed, though they knew Delali was right. She was tempted to continue, but stopped herself. While Vic and Abbie had been totally honest about their magic sins, blurting them out about two Cuervo shots into the night, Delali had stayed mostly quiet, not sure how she felt about the Safiya thing just yet. When Vic had pressed, noting Delali’s uncharacteristic silence, even Delali knew she’d been obnoxiously holier-than-thou, saying she’d only used her powers to dismount into a perfect Hollywood comeback and start hooking up with her hot-but-annoying ex again, leaving innocents mostly unharmed.

“That sounds fake but okay,” Vic had said before taking a pointed sip of her drink, thankfully dropping the subject.

“Second of all,” Delali continued, “Both of you miserable bitches need more alcohol in your system, like now. I’m trying to have a good time tonight once Charlotte’s powerless.” She padded over to the cabinet next to her mini fridge and pulled out three plastic purple cups (leftover merch from her Georgia days). She tapped the side of the first cup and watched as it filled with sweet-smelling brown liquid. She did Vic’s cup next, then Abbie’s.

“Ooh,” Vic said, bending to pick up a cup and taking a big gulp. “Don’t know why it never occurred to me that our powers could be used for perfectly mixed drinks.”

“It was an early discovery for me,” Delali said.

Abbie picked up her cup, took a sip, and let out a squeal. “I can’t believe we’re finally going to The Gathering!”

“I know,” Vic said. There was a level of earnest excitement in her voice that she was usually careful to conceal. “And we’re going to meet other witches, not just eavesdrop on them.”

“I wonder what they’re like,” Delali said, settling into the chair at her vanity. Abbie started spreading her makeup tools neatly on the dresser.

“What kind of look are you thinking?” she asked Delali. “I feel like something sparkly would be perfect for that gown.” Abbie gestured towards the mauve Ralph Lauren cutout gown Delali had fallen in love with the second she’d seen it.

“Glitter is good— but can you make it kind of witchy?”

“Got it.” Abbie studied Delali’s face as she cleaned off one of her lipsticks with a Kleenex. “I wonder if there’ll be any guys at The Gathering,” she wondered aloud. “Do you think witch-affiliated men are hotter than regular men?”

Delali and Vic shared a look. “The correct term is magic-affiliated men,” Delali said, remembering the pamphlet MJ had given them on magical heredity. “And yeah, there probably will be. Witches do have brothers, sons, husbands, et cetera.”

“True,” Vic said. “But to your other question...I think they’re just like, regular men.”

“But what if having a witch mom makes you hotter?”

“Why?” Delali asked, raising her eyebrows at Abbie. “You trying to build a roster?”

No,” Abbie stressed. “I was just wondering.”

Delali opened her mouth to tease Abbie again, but before she could, Vic gasped. Abbie and Delali turned to look at her. Vic’s hand was clasped around a pink ruffled dress with a high collar and plunging neckline.

“Holy shit— is this Rodarte?” Vic stripped off her H&M T-shirt dress before Delali could answer and stepped into her literal dream dress. “Zip me,” she whined impatiently, and Abbie paused her work on Delali’s makeup oblige her.

“Oh my god,” Abbie said, looking at Vic in the mirror. “That dress plus a smoky eye? Super witchy.”

Vic laughed and turned indulgently, considering herself from every angle. “Guys,” she said. “I wonder what Charlotte will wear. Like what does the queen—”

“Regent,” Delali corrected.

“I was being hyperbolic,” Vic said. “Anyway, what does the fucking Queen of the witch universe—I know,” she said before Delali could interrupt, “wear to a party that’s basically the Met Gala, an inaugural ball, and New Years combined?”

“Except with magic,” Delali chimed in. “God, I can’t wait.” Her life had been severely lacking in black tie events in recent years, and she was dying to get back in the game.

“I wonder what Charlotte looks like period,” Abbie added.

Delali stared at her in disbelief. “You really didn’t do any of the readings?”

Abbie shrugged as she dabbed her favorite liquid blush onto Delali’s cheekbones. “I read most of them. Well, some of them,” she admitted.

Delali sighed. “Over there,” she said, gesturing towards the stack of booklets on her bedside table, careful to keep her face still for Abbie. “The one at the bottom, about the governing system. It has pictures of all the current Council members. I think it’s charmed to update automatically every year.”

Vic walked over to the table picked up the booklet, the weight of her gown making her feel like she was underwater. She flipped through the pamphlet, which fell easily to the Council members page— it was clear Delali had spent a lot time looking at it. The first page showed the lower level Council members, about twenty agents on a page that looked like a high school yearbook. The pictures were in stark color against the gray page, and they seemed alive, the women blinking and changing their expressions minutely. On the next page, the pictures were larger, featuring a stunning set of ten women called the “High Council.” Vic stared at the portraits, awestruck. She ran her fingers over the page, momentarily afraid that the women would feel her touch. Finally, she flipped to the next page. There, a single portrait stretched from edge to edge.

The woman on this page didn’t wink or smirk or touch her hair like the others. Instead, she barely moved at all. The only indication that it was a live photo like the others was her sparse blinking, each closing of her eyelids revealing a look of greater determination than the last. Fine cursive appeared beneath the image as though being erased and rewritten in what Vic assumed was Charlotte’s even, regal handwriting. The words kept refreshing, and Vic read “Regent Charlotte Abbott, third of her line” until her vision blurred.

This is her?” she asked. Suddenly, Vic was terrified— how were they supposed to match this woman? Without MJ there to calm her or assure her of her abilities, the spell they cast three days ago suddenly felt like a horrible mistake. How could they be sure it had worked? And if it had, how could they be sure that Charlotte wouldn’t still find a way to come after them, even without her magical powers?

“Hey,” Abbie said. “I wanna see.”

Vic stood and walked, trancelike, over to where Abbie stood doing Delali’s makeup. She held the photo before them, and Abbie let out a quiet gasp. Vic and Delali nodded. They all stared at the blinking, unsmiling photo and between them, a shared fear colored the air, the weight of the night before them finally settling firmly on their shoulders.

In the days between the emergency Council meeting and the festival, Nadine debated endlessly on whether she should request a private audience with Charlotte. The failure of the last one deterred her, but so much had changed since then. At their last meeting, she had told Charlotte about the possibility of the Mothers’ return, and now they would be meeting with the knowledge that Nadine had been right all along, putting them, surely, on something that resembled equal footing. Still, it felt like especially bad timing: with The Gathering so close, Charlotte was probably on edge.

But The Gathering was exactly why Nadine was so concerned. Thousands of witches had descended on 33, 26 and its environs, many of them guests at the Regent’s gala but others in town for the peripheral events for those who hadn’t been lucky enough to secure an invite. For the first time in decades, every member of every powerful family in the Witch Sphere and every witch with a named power would be in one location, distracted by the grandeur of the event and relaxed by food and drink. What had once excited Nadine about the gala now filled her with a murky fear that only intensified the longer she went without speaking to Charlotte.

She had heard from others working closely with the Regent that she had moved from exacting to authoritarian. The glee brought on by the failed deposition had passed quickly, and Charlotte was now making outrageous demands at all hours of the day to ensure the event ran flawlessly. Most assumed Charlotte was merely driven by her desire to return the festival to its former lavish glory, erasing the somber day of remembrance it had become in the years since The Shatter, but Nadine knew better. She had seen the look on Charlotte’s face when she realized Nadine was correct. The initial shock had quickly given way to a thinly veiled terror, and Charlotte had immediately cast a shush spell that would prevent Councilmembers from discussing the meeting with anyone who hadn’t been present. After Charlotte had dismissed them, Nadine had gone home alone, thinking of how Charlotte would rush to the root as soon as 33, 26 had been vacated, touching the plant Nadine had identified as the beginnings of a new Cradle months ago.

At first, Nadine’s imaginings of the Mothers had conjured images of women like her mother, their skin smooth and unlined, their limbs long and graceful, all three moving with an air of nobility. But when her trip to New York revealed the foolishness of that presumption, she occupied herself with a new concern—  she realized had no sense of the Mothers’ temperaments. What if the women with the magic of the Mothers somehow also had their memories—if such a concept even applied—and they remembered how things had been when they’d first gathered the world together? Were they angry now, seeing how lapsed and broken things had become? Perhaps they had come to destroy the Cradle, ready to begin the world anew, to launch a second attempt at a perfect Witch Sphere, another try at creation as they had intended it. If that was the case, what would happen to Nadine’s powers, to her mother’s, to the magic of all the witches across the Sphere? There were too many variables to consider, and in Nadine’s opinion, it was too reckless to proceed with the festival without knowing them all.

There was little information available about magical reincarnation, what happened when a witch was born with the powers of another. In fact, few even thought it was possible. In university, Nadine had learned that most academics in the Witch Sphere believed that when a witch passed, her magic dissipated into the universe, mixing with free-floating atmospheric magic, remaining distinct but connected before finding a human vessel. This was how newborn witches acquired their powers— magic didn’t just come from nowhere— and it was widely agreed that the material traits of the magic source made no impact on the newborn witch at all. But that was the widely-accepted theory for what happened to the magic of any ordinary witch. The magic of the Mothers was a different story entirely. It had clearly imbued the women in possession of it with extraordinary capabilities, and Nadine couldn’t help but wonder what else these three women had inherited.

On the morning of The Gathering, Nadine resolved to speak to Charlotte, if only to calm her own nerves. Too tired to keep up pretenses—she’d stayed up all night, still wondering if a meeting with Charlotte was worth it—Nadine transported haphazardly to the hall outside of Charlotte’s study instead of driving, tripping over her own feet as she arrived. Isla sat at her desk by the entrance to the study, casting a sidelong glance in Nadine’s direction before turning her attention back to the little paper dolls she had animated to march in a circle on her desk.

“Is the Regent available now?” Nadine asked, straightening her clothes. “I’d like to request a private audience.”
“Hm?” said Isla. Her paper dolls had begun to pirouette across the desk, mimicking Isla’s twirling finger.

“I’d like to request a private audience,” Nadine repeated slowly, watching Isla ignore her. Frustrated, she waved her index finger in the air, drawing a crisp horizontal line, and Isla’s dolls were beheaded, their headless bodies taking one last jaunt around the desk before falling flat.

Isla looked up at her, horrified and annoyed, and Nadine flashed her an uncharacteristically rude smile. “Private audience,” she said again, and Isla scrawled ‘NOX’ on the black pad in front her with a charmed stylus. It was linked to another on Charlotte’s desk; in real time, the exact same message would appear on its twin.

The door to Charlotte’s study flung open, and Nadine walked inside, jumping at the heavy thud of the door as it swung closed behind her.

“Regent,” she said, bending slightly forward as she approached Charlotte’s wide desk. She performed the bow with amusement— now that she knew she’d been right about the Mothers and Charlotte had been wrong, the Regent, along with her office, her attendants, and her pompous customs, no longer intimidated her. The majority of the desk’s surface was taken up by a scaled model of 33, 26, sans roof, and the grounds, charmed to automatically update as the preparations came together around them. Every few seconds a miniature hanging lantern appeared from nowhere along the perimeter of the grounds, reflecting the work of the decorators conjuring them outside. Charlotte had pushed the model aside, however, and was poring over a stack of papers. Nadine caught a glimpse of their text before she sat in the chair in front of Charlotte’s desk. It was a fresh copy of the updated security plan for the gala, drafted and delivered by Camille just that morning.

Nadine sat patiently, her fingers laced and her ankles crossed, until Charlotte finally acknowledged her.

“Yes?” Charlotte said, thumbing through the packet in front of her.

“I just wanted to voice some concerns I had,” Nadine said slowly, straightening and moving toward the edge of her seat.

“Did you?” asked Charlotte lightly. She dragged her finger over a sentence in the text, and a thick red line developed over it.

“Yes,” said Nadine. “I’d hoped to speak after your…discovery at the emergency meeting, but things moved so quickly.” If Nadine’s allusion to the return of the Mothers elicited any reaction from Charlotte, she was careful not to show it.
“And what did you want to speak about?”

Nadine cleared her throat. “The Gathering,” she said. “I worry that it’s not safe to proceed with the event. Even with the top agents working as security, it’s impossible to fully protect things, and so many influential people will be there, unusually vulnerable because of the nature of the event.”
“Mmm.” Nadine perked up—Charlotte had put down the security briefing—but deflated as Charlotte turned her attention to the model of the house, where tiny tents were being erected. Still, Nadine persisted.

“We don’t know anything about these women housing the magic of the Mothers,” she pressed on. “The map is still broken and we have no way to monitor them. They could be vengeful, plotting something; we should at least try to find them and—”

“I wasn’t aware you’d become a Seer,” Charlotte interrupted, looking up from her desk at last.

Nadine blinked and sat back. “I’m not,” she said dumbly. “I mean, I—”
“Don’t presume that your role in the Magic Reinstatement Program—a role in which you failed—has somehow elevated you to my rank. There is no we. There is only me, the Regent, a fact you seem to have forgotten.” Charlotte folded her hands on her desk and made eye contact with Nadine, leveling her with a frigid stare. “The Gathering is not open for debate,” she said. “Tonight will proceed as planned.”

Nadine opened her mouth and closed it again, heat rising up in her face. She watched as Charlotte turned her attention back to the security plans before letting out a frustrated grunt and tossing it aside. Charlotte lifted her charmed stylus and wrote “summon Camille” on the pad, and then refilled her mug with a swirling dark liquid threaded with milky blue streams (tea laced with Focus Draught, Nadine guessed). She opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out another thick packet of paper. Charlotte opened it and began to read, muttering to herself as if Nadine had already left. After a beat, Nadine finally did.