Ember McNair–pub owner, witch, amateur sleuth, and bride-to-be–sat straight-backed and anxious in the lobby of the Fairy Tales Inn.
Of all the inns in Cauchemar, Louisiana, the Fairy Tales Inn was the one best beloved for its charm and local color. It was where important and interesting people who passed through town tended to stay.
At that moment, there was a very important and interesting person, just upstairs. Ember was waiting for that person to come down and meet her in the lobby.
The inn was run by Ember’s friend, Luka Reynolds, who was a sweet, charming fairy. At the moment, Luka was hovering nearby, lighting a cedar-scented candle on a side-table. All the while as she fussed around the room, Luka politely pretended not to know her friend Ember was squirming in quiet agony in the wingback chair not five paces away.
“Coffee, hon?” Luka asked Ember sweetly when Ember’s eyes flicked up to her for a second.
Ember shook her head. “No, no… we’ll probably, you know… head out to the pub. Once she comes down.”
Luka nodded and gave Ember’s shoulder a quick squeeze as she moved past. “That’ll be nice,” she remarked softly. “You’ll get to show her your business. I’m sure she’ll be really proud.”
Will she be proud? Ember couldn’t help but wonder. Weeks ago, the thought that she even had a sister to be proud of her would have made Ember laugh in disbelief.
Ember had lost all memories of her sister, Ash, due to some magical means Ember still didn’t fully understand. It had taken a lot of time, effort, and risky work on the part of Ember and her friends to win her back her memories.
Now, she cherished those memories like the fragile things they were. Since she had brought them back with a powerful spell, Ember caught herself returning to them again and again, turning them over.
Ash had always been the mischievous one. Ember recalled that now–following after her sister, watching her antics with wide-eyed delight. All the friends they’ve made together, the huddles of neighborhood kids with scraped knees roaming the local cul-de-sacs on bicycles and roller blades.
And Ash at the heart of it all, the bravest and boldest of them. Their de facto leader, organizing charges through the woods.
Since regaining her memories a few days ago, Ember and Ash had shared a few conversations on the phone. It filled Ember’s heart full to brimming to get to speak again with the sister she’d lost.
But it also made her feel a deep, pulling sorrow to talk to Ash. Talking to her reminded Ember of all the time they’d lost irretrievably, all the parts of Ash’s life Ember didn’t know anything about, and maybe never would.
Not to mention all the parts of Ember’s life Ash didn’t know about yet.
Speaking of which.
Ember’s phone buzzed with a message from her fiancé.
Hope you’re holding up well, Cedric wrote. Then, seconds later, another message: Thinking of you.
Ember smiled at her phone screen. Without Cedric, she never would have found Ash. He had been the one to remind Ember of her sister’s existence.
Cedric had been one of those neighbor kids on bicycles, way back in the day. That was how he’d known Ash. When he realized Ember and her family didn’t have any memory of her, he’d started his dogged pursuit of answers. He’d been the one to track down Ash, who was using a different name, and help Ember and her sister reconnect.
Of all the parts of her life Ember was eager to fill her sister in on, she was perhaps most excited to tell Ash all about her relationship with Cedric.
And most particularly about the wedding, which was only a week away.
Nearly all of the preparations for the wedding were done already. It wasn’t going to be a huge affair. Neither bride nor groom was interested in throwing a big blowout. The reception would be held in Ember’s own pub. And Cedric had been incredibly helpful, even taking on more than his fair share of the planning in order to give Ember time to adjust to bringing Ash back into her life.
“You’ve got enough on your plate, I should think,” he’d told her one evening when he found her agonizing over the seating charts. Then he’d plucked them up from the table and she hadn’t had to think about it ever again.
As far as Ember was concerned, she was marrying a superhero.
Still in the lobby waiting, she tapped out. She should be down soon, then we’re headed to the Broken Broom.
Then, in another message, she added, Love you.
“Texting your beau?”
The voice was distinctly not Luka’s. Ember looked up from her phone, eyes wide.
The woman standing before her was in some ways familiar, and in some ways a complete stranger. With her dark hair and ultramarine eyes, she looked a good deal like Ember herself. And she looked even more like the girl Ember had adored all those years ago, had trailed after like a shadow.
“Ash,” Ember said, rising hastily from the wingback chair. In her rush, her phone tumbled to the ground. “Oh!” she cried, dropping to pick it up.
“Oh, no, let me get that!”
Ash was faster. They nearly bumped heads on the way down, so Ember awkwardly rose and waited, allowing her sister to fetch her phone for her.
When Ash straightened up again, phone in hand, she was smirking faintly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to see the screen, it just….”
Ember took the phone back, glancing at the screen to see what Ash had witnessed.
Love you too from Cedric was lit up brightly.
Ember cleared her throat, but she and Ash were both smiling now.
“I still can’t get used to it,” Ash confessed. “My little sister and Cedric Jamison, wolf boy extraordinaire.”
“That’s Sheriff Wolf Boy now,” Ember said.
The sisters giggled. Then, warmly, Ash wrapped her arms around Ember, and they hugged tightly.
Ember felt tears threatening to spill. When they finally parted, she saw that Ash also looked faintly misty-eyed.
Even Luka, not-so-subtly watching from behind the check-in desk, was sniffing faintly into a tissue.
“Well,” Ash said, “how about we check out this pub of yours?”
The Broken Broom Pub was closed for the evening, which meant that it was empty and quiet when Ember unlocked the door and let Ash inside.
The pub had been in the McNair family for a long time. As children, Ash and Ember had both popped in now and then, and usually been treated to an Italian soda or a delectable treat from the dessert display case for their troubles.
Ember looked around, trying to see the pub through her sister’s eyes. Was she remembering the same things, too? Splitting a cherry tart at the bar? Blowing bubbles in their strawberry lemonades?
“Looks like you’ve done really well with this place,” Ash remarked after taking a turn around the dining area.
Suddenly, there was the sound of something rushing into the room. Ash jumped a little, but it was only a small black kitten, who looked up at Ash with bright, appraising eyes.
“Hello,” said the kitten.
“Hello,” Ash replied. “You must be Kali.”
“Yes,” Ember cut in. “My familiar. Kali, this is Ash. Why don’t we all have a seat? I’ll get us some drinks. Ash, what do you want?”
“Maybe just some wine?”
“Sure,” Ember said, ducking behind the bar.
Ember was a little nervous about Ash and Kali meeting. Kali had a supernatural ability to pick up on people’s energies, to know when they were lying or hiding something.
It wasn’t that Ember distrusted Ash. It was that she wanted so badly to trust her, and she was worried that if Kali started being cagey around the newcomer that might mean there was something wrong going on here.
She needn’t have worried. When she returned to the table with some wine, she saw that Kali had curled up on Ash’s lap and was allowing herself to be thoroughly petted. Her purring sounded like a little vacuum cleaner.
“Well,” Ash said once she and Ember had settled in, “I suppose you’ll want to hear the whole thing?”
“If that’s all right. I’d understand if you were a little tired.”
Ash shook her head. “I want to get this out of the way. I’ve been holding onto it all for so long, hoping I’d get the chance to explain….”
She took a sip from her glass of wine. Ember followed suit.
“So, back then, when we were kids, I made some friends, and I wanted to start spending time with them. Trouble was, they were dark witches. And spending time with them… well, what I really wanted was to go to a coven meeting.”
Ember raised her eyebrows, surprised. In all the memories she’d recovered, none of this had come up.
“You must have kept all this from me.”
“I did. I was careful to. I thought I was old enough to, you know, get to know these characters without falling into any danger, but I didn’t want anything bad to happen to you. Obviously, I was wrong. About being old enough, I mean.”
“Did Mom and Dad know?”
“Yeah,” Ash said. “But only because I asked them. For some reason I thought if I was upfront with them they would be all right with it. Would see how responsible I was being and let me make friends with whoever I wanted so long as I was safe. But they totally freaked out. They tried to forbid me from going.”
“Emphasis on tried?” Kali remarked, voice muffled from where her face was tucked up against her own fur.
“That’s right. I did try to sneak out, and I even succeeded once or twice. But of course they caught me eventually. It was looking pretty rough… I was in for some serious grounding. Back in those days, that felt like the end of the world, you know?”
“Sure,” Ember said, though the truth was she couldn’t remember ever having been grounded. It was always Ash who was testing their parents’ boundaries in that way.
“So I borrowed a book of dark magic from one of the other witches, this girl named Cassandra. It was a spell to erase memories. I just wanted to erase their memories of catching me sneaking out. Maybe also their memories of my telling them I was spending time with the dark coven in the first place. If only they didn’t know, I thought… if I hadn’t told them….”
“It went wrong?” Ember guessed.
“That’s a very generous understatement.” Ash sipped her wine. “I was totally unprepared for that level of magic. Instead of erasing the memories I meant to erase, it ended up erasing memories of me from the whole household.”
“That must have been frightening,” Ember said.
Ash was shaking a little as she nodded. Evidently even remembering that time still affected her strongly.
“I went to Cassandra for help. She’d given me the spellbook, so I thought she could help me figure out how to reverse what I’d done. But… all Cassandra told me was that I was a dark witch now. I’d been forgotten by my original family, and now I had a new one, in their coven.”
Ember gasped. “So… did you join with them?”
Ash shook her head. “I left. I felt so guilty about what I’d done… but even feeling that guilt, I couldn’t stand the thought of joining up with the dark coven. I felt so betrayed by Cassandra.”
“Where did you go?”
Ash shrugged. “Far enough. I opened a jewelry shop of my own. I didn’t want to put down roots, because I was always hoping I could come back here. But I never managed to decide when or how to do that.”
Ember was taking all this information in when a knock sounded on the door.
“Sorry,” Ember said, automatically rising. “It’s probably some customer who thinks we’re open. I’ll tell them we’re closed.”
“There’s no rush,” Ash insisted. “Kali is plenty company for me.”
Kali purred happily to emphasize this point.
It was Cedric at the door.
“Sorry, I thought about calling but since you were on the way….” He pointedly didn’t crane his neck to look past Ember into the dining area. He wanted to give Ember and Ash their privacy for their first reunion.
“It’s no trouble at all,” Ember said, rising on tiptoe to kiss him. “What’s going on?”
“I just wanted to let you know that I’m heading out of town for a case. Not far, but a little out of my jurisdiction.”
“What’s the case? And why are you involved if it’s not here in town?”
“Someone asked me as a favor. It’s a possible suicide. A local dark witch who lives a little way out.”
Ember’s skin pricked at this. “Dark witch?” she asked. “Anyone I’d know?”
“I’m not sure,” Cedric said. “You ever meet a woman named Cassandra?”