Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
The cloying scent of vapor smoke in the lounge is as suffocating and sweet as the memories of my grandma. The last time I came to Chinatown to sell products to Rowen Huang, Granny was with me.
She was alive, and I was a very different girl.
Now I sit on one of the plush red loveseats waiting for the Huang Matriarch to grace us with her presence. The velvet of the fabric invites you to sink into it, but I keep my back straight and lean forward. Lounging into the furniture just makes me look smaller, even more like a little kid than I already do. I fight not to grit my teeth. I’m so hacking tired of being reminded that I’m a “child.”
Beside me, Keisha has no problem snuggling into the crimson cushions. She’s pulled her knees up to her chest, bulky coat pooling around her neck, scrolling through her phone while I search the room for Rowen.
Around us, the Huang family members stare. When I was here with Granny, they stared too, but not at me. I wasn’t important then. I wasn’t a Matriarch and definitely wasn’t the youngest one crowned in our family for centuries. And I absolutely wasn’t the girl with two gifts, something rare even outside of our family, in the Black witch community as a whole.
People look at me now.
And no matter what I do, they find me wanting.
I’ve avoided doing this drop-off for Rowen since Granny died specifically to not have to deal with this—letting Keisha, Alex, or Mom handle the in-person deliveries of the special serum and products that Rowen prizes. Except last time, she insisted that I show my face, claiming that she missed me. I’m sure she barely knew my name before this.
But Rowen loves a juicy piece of gossip, and these days, I’m the juiciest there is.
My fingers twitch on my lap. Every time I hear a whisper, I can’t help but think they’re talking about me. Me and the family.
No way that little girl can fill her granny’s shoes.
Why did they pick her?
How the mighty have fallen.
“She knows we don’t have all day, right?” Keisha whines, snapping me out of my thoughts. Today, my cousin is wearing a honey-brown sew-in wig that seems as long as my body is tall.
I swallow. “I’m sure she does.”
Rowen never made Granny wait. If I were her, I would have already left. But we’re not in that sort of position anymore. Six months ago, when my family decided to do an impure ritual to help me avoid completing the task to become a witch and save my little sister Eden’s life in the process, they ruined our purity.
Now I know that those labels don’t matter. All they do is divide our community even more than it already is. Magic is nothing more or less than blood and intent. Mama Jova taught me that.
But these days, even she doesn’t show her face.
And everyone except me is happy to cling to their divisions.
Pure witches like the Huangs treat us with a level of disdain they never did before. In the wake of Granny’s death, we’ve lost our placements in stores owned by pure witches, and I’ve stumbled through trying to maintain the relationships we do have with the awkward grace of a drone piloted by a toddler.
People talk back to me in a way they wouldn’t have dared with Granny. They argue about prices or threaten to pull our stock for better deals. Or they act like Rowen, making us wait because she knows we’re desperate.
No one gives a shit that Granny chose me. That Mama Jova chose me. That I did the best I could to protect our family from Justin Tremblay’s attempt to control us in his quest for immortality. It’s like everything I accomplished six months ago means nothing now. Like I’m the exact same girl who stayed in that blood bath for hours, dreading her Calling.
But I’m not.
Keisha taps her long fingernails on her phone and steupses under her breath. “I just want to get this over with.”
“I know,” I say, peering at the back room door where I know Rowen is probably sitting and waiting us out. “She’ll come soon, I’m sure.”
“Like, ‘I can see the future’ sure, or just ‘I hope I’m right’ sure?”
When I passed my Calling all those months ago, I was given two gifts—the past and the future. The power to see both the past of a person and the future I created when my actions pushed them from whatever path they had been on before to a new one.
It was only after the Pass that I realized how difficult that is to figure out. How exactly am I supposed to know for sure whether I’ve changed someone’s “path”?
“I doubt I’ve done anything to change the path of Rowen’s life, so I can’t see whatever future results from it,” I say. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t use it to see if she’s coming soon or not.”
Keisha is and has always been frustrating. But even as irritating as she can be sometimes, she’s been there for me. She comes on beauty supply runs or helps coordinate them with our other cousin, Alex. When I’m alone in my room, contemplating how I can make everyone believe that I’ll be a decent Matriarch, she’ll pop in with a snack and force me to watch a feed show with her.
She’s there every time Keis would usually be. Keis, my favorite cousin. My first love. My best friend, who I sentenced to never leave our family home to save the future of a boy who now hates me.
My restless fingers grip the soft fabric of my coat. I’m not the same girl I used to be, struggling with every single choice. I can’t be. As a Matriarch, I need to be resolute in every decision I make, like Granny was.
But losing Keis is a choice I don’t know if I got right.
Rowen bursts out of the back room, thick hips swaying in a form-fitting gown with a slit up the side that looks like it’s made of molten gold. Matching clips are stuck in her chin-length hair to tug it back from her face. Her skin looks flawless, as usual. Granny had a backup stash of the special tonic she made specifically for Rowen, and we’ve been running through the supply ever since.
“If it isn’t my favorite little Matriarch,” she coos as she sweeps in front of Keisha and me. “I hope to get an invite to your showcase.”
I bite my lip to stop a sneer from coming out and slap my cousin’s knee to make her sit properly, which she does with a scowl, her fluffy boots slamming onto the intricate rug underneath us.
“No showcase for me,” I say. Like elaborate debutant balls, showcases are rare events in the witch community when those with particularly interesting gifts gather people to show it off. It was more useful back in the day when families wanted to demonstrate how powerful they were. I can’t imagine doing something that draws that much attention to myself now or ever. And definitely not just so everyone can gossip about my gifts more than they already do.
“Too bad.” Rowen frowns at Keisha. “Who is this? The cousin who always has her nose in a tablet? Ava always said you two were thick as thieves. My uncle was sad to hear you weren’t available for his internship.”
I twitch at her mention of Granny’s name and hate myself for it. I jerk even more when I realize she’s talking about Keis. “No.” I don’t offer any more. I can’t. I don’t want to talk about it.
“I’m Keisha,” my cousin jumps in for me.
The Huang Matriarch makes a little “ah” noise in the back of her throat, latching onto the discord with a gentle joy. I expect her to pry deeper, but even she seems to know not to go that far. Not when Granny’s been ashes for less than a year.
Her funeral wasn’t even that long ago. I remember standing inside the dining room, the grief hanging like smoke in the air, choking us all into silence. Our family and the Davises were the only ones there. We did invite Granny’s old family, the brothers and sisters who left when she decided to be pure. Some had pledged to new Matriarchs or had kept the Thomas name and lived without a Matriarch, our magic separate despite our shared name. Most witches never choose the latter because it means living without protection, and it’s a guarantee that your magic will get weaker. But I guess some would rather be Thomases than anything else.
I invited them all anyway.
But none came.
Keisha hefts the tote bag of beauty products onto the low coffee table between us. “Your products for this month.”
With a single, long manicured nail, Rowen presses the edges of the bag away and peers with a casual disinterest at the wares. That’s not what she really cares about.
“And your vial,” I say, grabbing it from the thick inside pocket of my jacket. It’s a simple glass bottle, maybe two inches long, with a rubber stopper and filled with blush-colored liquid. I reach out to pass it to her, and it shakes the slightest bit between my fingers.
Rowen’s eyes narrow.
I swallow with a gulp audible enough to make me fight a cringe.
Keisha’s side-eye is so obvious that I don’t have to look at her to know she’s doing it.
The Huang Matriarch plucks the vial from my fingers and examines it.
I clear my throat in the same signature “pay me” sound that Granny used to use.
Rowen ignores it.
“We need to get going,” Keisha says, dragging the words out and making a show of zipping her jacket back up.
“Do you mind if I pay after?” Rowen says to me.
My jaw drops. “What?”
“I think, given the circumstances, it would be best if I sampled the product to be sure it stacks up to the usual quality.”
“But… we’ve been delivering to you for the past six months since…” I can’t say it aloud, can’t admit that she’s gone. Can’t make it real. “You haven’t had a problem.”
“There have been some titters about quality dropping.” She presses a hand to her chest. “Not from me, of course.”
“From who?” Keisha asks.
Rowen smiles indulgently at her. “I don’t like to gossip.”
My blood heats under my skin. Rivers of it poised at any time to become sharp whips. This time, I can’t hold myself back from gritting my teeth. Keisha inhales sharply beside me, though she tries to smother it.
Rowen continues, “They said they got a delivery yesterday and it didn’t seem quite up to snuff. I’m just the messenger, so don’t be upset with me.” She waves a hand and stares into my eyes. “I think it would be appropriate, considering my loyalty to you, to let me try things out. And next month, if everything is good, I’ll pay double. No problem, right?”
Every bit of me wants to say no. Granny would have said no. She wouldn’t have ever let Rowen play her like this or even deal with the disrespect of the offer. But even as defiance kisses my lips, something in me twists away from it.
“That’s fine. We’ll be back next month for double.” The words don’t even feel like my own. They slide out, expanding and spreading from my tongue like soft butter in a pan.
“Wonderful,” Rowen preens, clapping her hands. “See you next month.”
Keisha doesn’t even say bye, just stomps out of the lounge, her fluffy boots clomping. I say a hurried goodbye to Rowen before chasing after my cousin.
The exit opens up into a Chinese food market with rows of fresh produce misted by water and aisles of colorful imported snacks. The woman at the counter stares us down, and I force out a smile for her that she doesn’t return.
We leave the store and break out into the frigid cold. February in Toronto is chilling winds and chalky salted sidewalks. Mounds of grime-stained snow and slush. People walking with their hands dug into the pockets of thick down-padded coats and hats pulled low on their heads.
Chinatown is as busy as ever, even in negative degree weather. Bright holos flash, loudly advertising each store, and the block is a crescendo of car horns, streetcars screeching on the tracks, and bicycle bells from the brave (or not smart) few who cycle no matter how much snow is on the ground.
Keisha’s coat has a hood as fluffy and pink as her boots, though without the salt stains. I tug my hood, sans any fluff, up over my head. We have to shuffle to the very edge of the sidewalk, nearly into the road, to stay out of the way of the people walking along Spadina Avenue.
“Are your circuits fried?!” Keisha snaps at me. “We just gave her product for free.”
“She knows.” I press my hands against my eyes. “She must.”
“How would she know?”
I think of my shaking fingers as I handed Rowen the vial of serum that I made myself without Granny’s help. The problem is that I lack whatever she used to make it special. It’s a dud. But we’ve run out of Granny’s stock. It’s a miracle that we made it this long in the first place. We needed to do something. I made the choice to sell our homemade batches instead of saying we had run out. The latter would have bought time, but we need money now.
We ran one of the new batches out to a James, and they’ve already noticed the difference and passed on the gossip. Of course, things couldn’t have worked out for once.
“Also,” Keisha says. “You definitely yanked on my magic.”
I cringe. “Sorry.” One of the powers that comes along with being the Matriarch is the ability to pull magic from other members of the family, and it’s not as easy to control as I thought it would be. Just another one of my many problems right now. Like how we need that money from Rowen. “I didn’t even mean to agree to her not paying. It just came out.” I’d wanted to fight more, but then for some reason I didn’t.
“Hack me,” Keisha breathes.
“She used her gift on you.”
“No,” I shake my head. “She wouldn’t do that.”
Rowen’s gift of a honeyed tongue can compel people to listen to her. To take notice of her words. It’s a more direct version of Rena Carter’s gift of suggestion. But a Matriarch using her gift against another Matriarch? That’s the sort of thing that would make wars break out between families back in the day. No one even tries that mess now.
Rowen wouldn’t do that. She’s been one of our clients for years, and only a few months ago she was helping me get Keis an internship opportunity with her family.
“She wouldn’t do that,” I repeat aloud, shaking my head, trying to go back through my thoughts and see if I remember a press of magic. It’s hard. That’s the whole point of being a strong witch. People aren’t supposed to realize when you’ve manipulated them.
“Um, yes she would, because no one hacking respects us!” Keisha throws her hands up. “Everyone is playing power politics now that Granny is gone. Do you know that Emerald told me one of the Baileys is looking into making beauty products now?”
Great, if Emerald is saying that, it means her dad, Johan, must know about it too. More witnesses to our downfall. Since I pissed him off last year by interfering with one of his family’s rituals, things have been awkward. I still fulfill my internship at his restaurant, but we’ve lost the vibe we used to have. The Thomases and the Davises used to feel like one big family. Now, it’s like we’re distant cousins or something. At least on my end.
Keisha continues, “The Baileys aren’t pure, so Rowen won’t buy from them. She’s only buying from us because she always has, and we’re at least trying to be pure. But it’s not about that! It’s about the disrespect!”
“Magic isn’t about being pure or impure, it’s—”
“Yes, yes, blood and intent. I get it. But, like, everyone else cares about that sort of thing.”
I’ve tried to get the family to understand why we shouldn’t be bothering with the pure/impure thing, but it hasn’t stuck with them, either. “What else did Emerald say?” At least I can have a guess at how far we’ve fallen in the Davises’ eyes.
Keisha shrugs. “Nothing much, just our usual chats. Focus! Rowen Huang used her gift against you.”
“We don’t know that.”
“We need to retaliate! This is hacking war, Vo!”
I let out a breath. “Let’s go home.”
“We’re going to let her get away with it?”
Keisha grumbles but follows me to the streetcar. We hop on one of the many red and white trains going to the Spadina subway station and ride in silence. I watch the bright holos over shops pass by, and all the places Granny used to point out as old froyo shops. Once, I asked her if she thought about Grandad much. I was thirteen, and it had been six years since he passed. I remembered something offhanded about him when she happened to be nearby. She said she thought about him every day.
I couldn’t understand it. How you could think of someone who was gone every single day?
But ever since she died, not a day has passed without her being in my thoughts.
Six years from now, maybe it’ll still be the same.
I don’t want to believe that Rowen used her gift against me, but Keisha is right. No one respects us, not anymore.
We don’t have Granny.
All we have is me.
And if there’s anyone in my family people are willing to disrespect, it’s their youngest and apparently most disappointing Matriarch.