As Rosemary squinted down into the soupy blackness of Miss Weaver’s cellar, a pair of skeletal feet, translucent and glowing faintly blue, plodded past the foot of the stairs. Furrowing her brow, Rosemary turned to face her client. “And you’re certain this is a poltergeist we’re dealing with?”
“What else could it be?” Miss Ida Weaver clung to the hem of her dress with fear-whitened knuckles. Her hair, prematurely greying at the roots, draped limply over her wiry shoulders, and purple half-moons hung beneath her puffy eyes. “Just listen to it raging down there.”
As if on cue, a resounding thud followed by a symphony of tinkling crashes echoed up from the dark cellar.
Ida groaned. “There go my jars of preserves.”
After offering a tight smile, Rosemary sloughed her trusty travel bag from her shoulder. “I won’t claim to be an expert in the undead,” she said, dropping to her knees on the flour-dusted pantry floor. “Living monsters are our usual speciality.” Her eyes flitted to the kitchen door, beyond which sounded the soft shing of a whetstone sliding against steel. Twig’s already sharpening her sword, she thought, worrying her teeth over her lower lip, and I still haven’t the faintest idea what’s waiting for us down in that cellar, never mind the best spell to banish it from the mortal realm….
Clenching her fingertips into the meat of her palms, Rosemary shook her head hard enough to dislodge a deluge of curls from her loosely tied bun. She needed to focus. Not dwell on her own anxieties. Focus.
Returning her attention to her own work, Rosemary plunged her arm shoulder-deep into her fist-sized travel bag—and fought back a smirk as Ida’s mouth dropped into an astonished little “o.” The bag was, of course, enchanted to extend its capacity. A practical spell for the on-the-go witch that doubled as a nifty trick for parties (though only, Rosemary insisted, under her direct supervision. She didn’t want a repeat of the time Twig wormed her way inside on a bet and got herself stuck betwixt the physical and magical dimensions).
Rosemary realized that a smile had crept unbidden to her lips. Immediately blanking the expression, she yanked a massive tome from her tiny bag. “I have, however, read extensively on the subject of ghosts and other assorted specters.” She ran an appreciative hand over the tome’s embossed cover—upon which the words Bartleby’s Guide to Beasts of the Night glittered in appropriately loopy lettering—before peeling the book open to scan the table of contents. “Poltergeists,” she explained, flipping the Guide to the chapter on the undead, “are entities of pure chaos. But your specter’s movements are too… deliberate? Focused. Like it’s searching for something.”
“Searching? In my cellar?” Ida’s spindly shadow loomed over Rosemary’s shoulder, blotting out the candlelight. “Whatever is it searching for?”
“Impossible to say, without more information.” Rosemary snapped the Guide shut (she’d read the Bog-danged thing so many times she practically had it memorized anyway) and set it aside. “If it’s a true ghost—that is, an actual person come back from the dead—it’d be someone with a strong connection to this location.” She craned her neck for a purposeful glance at Ida.
“My gram passed a few weeks ago,” said Ida, hesitantly, “but she never even set foot in this house, so it couldn’t be her… could it?”
“That depends,” said Rosemary, rummaging in her bag for wormroot and dried nightmare beetle wings. The seed of an incantation was sprouting in the back of her brain. Fortunately, it was an easy one and—assuming the ghost really was the grandmother and not some more sinister specter—it might actually work. “Did you inherit anything from her? Some item of intense personal significance perhaps?”
Ida shook her head. “GamGam didn’t own much of significance, personal or otherwise. Only thing of hers in this entire house is an old Stones and Bones set I’ve got sitting on my bedside table upstairs. But she gifted me that more’n twenty years ago. Right after my grandpa died. So I don’t see why she’d suddenly want it back now that she’s dead.”
“Stones and Bones?” asked Rosemary absentmindedly as she chopped the wormroot she’d scrounged from the bottom of her bag into neat little slices.
“It’s a game. Played on a board with these little figures carved from, well, stones and bones. Old people round here like it. Why, GamGam used to play it with PawPaw every Bog-damned day. Before he died, that is.” Ida paused, her lips pinching and her eyebrows stitching together. “I think GamGam’d hoped I would pick up the habit. She tried to teach me how to play, the day she gave the set to me. But I told her I wasn’t interested. That I didn’t even want to learn the rules.” Ida blinked a few times and then swiped the back of her hand over her eyes. “Anyway, she never mentioned it again after that.”
Anxious to give Ida a moment to compose herself, Rosemary pretended to be quite absorbed with the jar of dried beetle wings she’d fetched from her bag. Scritch. Scritch. The tiny black arcs danced as she shook a few from the jar and into the mortar. “Were you and your grandmother close?” she ventured as she ground the wings and wormroot into a glob of greenish mush.
“We got along—fine,” said Ida, fidgeting with the fabric of her dress. “I mean, she was a wonderful grandmother, don’t get me wrong. Just a tad… difficult. Expected a bit of a song and dance from everyone just for the honor of existing in her presence—but I loved her, of course. And she loved me. In her way. ”
“And you’re certain there isn’t anything of hers in the cellar?”
Ida shook her head. “Not a thing. I’m sure of it.”
Rosemary rested her elbows in her lap and her chin on her knuckles. The ghost might be the grandmother, and if so, the exorcism would be a simple matter of guiding her back to the underworld. But if it wasn’t…? Rosemary sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. She’d read accounts of angry spirits. Wraiths and the like. Twisted, tortured souls driven to roam the mortal plane by pure, blinding rage. What if the creature in the cellar is truly malevolent? Twig would be prepared. She was always calm and confident in the face of uncertain danger. But Rosemary? What if I’m leading Twig and myself into something far beyond our capabilities? What if, when the moment comes, I can’t provide the necessary support? What if everything gets completely and utterly out of hand? What if…? Rosemary could practically taste the acidic anxiety bubbling up through her chest. She swallowed it back down before thrusting her arm again into the chasm of her travel bag. Best to prepare a few more spells… just in case.
Her fingers, sweeping for powdered dragon scales and pickled frog’s eyes, instead curled around a familiar bit of knotted wood. She withdrew the object: a flute, black as ash, whittled from a scrap of nightwood. Though it looked like little more than a hollowed stick with a few lopsided finger holes, this flute was one of Rosemary’s most treasured possessions. Bringing the flute to her nose, Rosemary breathed in the deep, musky scent of the wood. Twig had made her this flute. The day they met. Five years ago.
Five years? She stroked the flute’s rough surface. Is that really the right number? It seemed at once far too long and incredibly short, for the years since she’d joined Twig in the monster relocation business had flown by in such a blur—and yet she could hardly remember a time when they weren’t together, battling horrifying monsters and trying not to fall in love. Fortunately for Rosemary, while she and Twig rather excelled at the former, they utterly failed at the latter, as the thin silver bands around each of their left ring fingers could attest. Heat crept across Rosemary’s cheeks as she touched first the flute and then the ring to her lips. It had, after all, been a good five years.
A prickling at the nape of Rosemary’s neck brought her back to the present. She glanced up—into Twig’s mirth-crinkled golden brown eyes.
“Having a sentimental moment on the floor of Miss Weaver’s pantry, are we?” said Twig, cocking a bushy eyebrow.
Glaring, Rosemary shoved the flute deep into the pockets of her skirts. “Just waiting for you to finish fiddling with your sword.”
“My apologies for the delay, milady.” Twig grinned broadly as she extended a hand. “I assure you that myself and my sword are now fully at your disposal.”
After buzzing an (admittedly overdramatic) breath past her lips, Rosemary placed her fingertips delicately into Twig’s palm—and immediately found herself whirled to her feet, a cloud of flour puffing from her crinkled skirt and one of Twig’s beefy arms draped comfortably over her shoulder.
With a quick, “One moment, Ma’am,” to Ida, Twig ushered Rosemary into the kitchen. “You ready for this, Rosie?” she asked, tucking a stray ringlet behind Rosemary’s ear before fluffing a hand through her own cropped hair.
“Of course,” said Rosemary, jutting out her chin. “Though I am… technically not… entirely certain as to the nature of the creature in the cellar.” Her chin and stomach dropped ever so slightly. “Or how best to face it.”
“Well I,” said Twig, leaning in so close their foreheads touched, “am ‘entirely certain’ that we’ll figure it out. Together.”
Rosemary fought back a blush as her wife’s breath puffed against her nose. Beer and blue cheese. How was it that two scents so detestable in their natural forms became appealing when clinging, stale and muddled, to Twig’s breath? She lifted her eyes mischievously. “What if the ghost whips out an alchemistry exam or demands an impromptu vocal performance?”
The color drained ever-so-slightly from Twig’s face, but her eyes remained stalwart. “I’ll sing the Table of Elementals Song if that’s what it takes.”
Rosemary giggled. “I’d like to hear that.” Stepping back, she adjusted the collar of Twig’s tunic. “Now, let’s get in there and help Miss Weaver with her monster problem,” she said, booping Twig on the nose with the tip of her pointer finger. “It is, after all, what we do.”
There, in the center of the cellar, crouched the specter, content, it seemed, to ignore the pair of flesh-and-blood humans who had clambered unceremoniously down the rickety cellar steps into its presence. The eerie blue glow of its skeletal form cast dancing shadows onto the walls as it rifled with claw-like hands through the contents of a large leather trunk.
Twig, her chest puffed out and her fingers already gripping the hilt of her sword, advanced—until Rosemary caught her by the elbow.
“Let me try. If it’s friendly, it might respond better to a… gentler… introduction.”
Twig’s nostrils flared, but she nodded and, after planting a sloppy kiss on Rosemary’s forehead, bowed to the side.
Running a finger over the pre-prepared vials of potion she’d tied around her waist like a belt, Rosemary stepped forward. “Eh-hem.”
If the spirit had heard, it made no indication, instead dipping its head deeper into the trunk.
Still no response.
Rosemary stomped her foot, clapped her hands, and even attempted a hand whistle, blowing around her fingers the way Twig had once done to quiet an entire tavern of brawling drunkards (Rosemary’s result, unfortunately, came out more spittle than whistle)—all to similar non-effect. At last, exasperated, she marched up to the ghost, extended an arm—and tapped it on the boney blue shoulder blade.
Slowly, jerkily, the specter’s skull twisted a full one-eighty degrees to stare at Rosemary with empty sockets.
No… not quite empty. Deep within each void-like opening glowed a light, a twinkling pupil bright as a single star in its own inky black galaxy. The spirit rose, its ghostly, glowing skull snapping back into place as it turned to face Rosemary.
“Ah, yes.” Resisting the urge to take a step back, Rosemary fumbled at her potion belt until she’d unfastened the necessary vial. “You may not be aware of this,” she said, her voice only slightly trembling, “but you are, well, you’re dead.” She uncorked the vial. Its contents—a green fluorescent goop composed of the moldy wormroot and crushed nightmare beetle wings dissolved in rose water and a dollop of Rosemary’s own saliva—hissed and fizzed. “I hope that information doesn’t come as a shock.” Raising the potion over the ghost’s head, Rosemary muttered an impromptu incantation: “May whatever force still binds you to this world dissipate so that you are free to, um, move on.”
Then, she tipped the vial.
Green goop splattered over the specter, dribbling down its skull to the dusty floor.
The air pulsed. The faint smell of damp leaves, the clink of teacups, and the murmurs of pleasant conversation drifted as if on an ethereal breeze. This is good, thought Rosemary with relief. Very good., The spirit is connecting with the underworld. The little starlights within the specter’s sockets wavered, creating the illusion of a bewildered blink—but then those sparkling pupils flared, merging from discrete points into one massive crimson blaze. Roaring fire spilled from the ghost’s orifices, cascading down its skeletal body and scorching the echo of the underworld from the air.
The specter’s jawbone groaned open to release a waterfall of flames. From the depths of that gaping, burning maw, a single word bellowed with the screech of claws rending metal: “RUDE.”
Rosemary stumbled backward. She opened her mouth intending to shout, but ended up merely coughing as the smoke from the flaming specter clogged her throat. Either I’ve just really pissed off GamGam, or this is a—
“Wraith!” Twig sprang forward, flinging up an arm as the ghost lunged. Skeletal claws dug into her leather bracer, but Twig knocked the flame-wreathed specter back with a sharp kick to the ribcage. “Brute force method then?” she said, glancing over her shoulder at Rosemary.
Rosemary nodded as she slipped another vial from her belt. “Heat resistance spell,” she said, holding the shimmering blue substance up for inspection before smashing the vial at Twig’s feet. The potion seeped into Twig’s boots, rising until her entire body was encased in frosty-white sparkle.
“Good idea,” said Twig. Then, drawing her sword, she attacked.
Rosemary retreated to the base of the stairs to prepare more spells. The peaceful exorcism had failed. Ripping the spirit forcibly from the mortal plane after Twig had beaten it into submission, while a less elegant option, would work. It had to.
With trembling hands, Rosemary groped for her bag—but paused when her fingers instead brushed the outline of the flute hidden in her pocket. She slid her hand into the pocket, pulled out the flute, and pressed it, more instinctively than deliberately, to her lips. Her eyes locked on her wife’s whirling form. Twig might as well be dancing, her fluid movements shifting effortlessly from thrust to pirouette to slice, but, despite the frost spell, beads of sweat were already blossoming on her brow.
Rosemary needed to put an end to this.
And, in that instant, she knew, without even thinking, what she needed to do.
She blew a note so clear, so crisp, it couldn’t possibly have formed from such a poorly carved flute. And yet, there it was, hanging in the air, ringing out over the grunts and clanks and scuffles of the fight. The specter froze mid-strike, cocking its skull toward the sound.
Not daring to look, Rosemary closed her eyes and played on.
The scene, five years old but fresh as yesterday, washed across the back of Rosemary’s eyelids.
Her cabin. Her little sanctuary in the middle of Toadmuddy Swamp. Swirls of ginger-scented smoke curling from the cauldron. Herbs drying upon the mantle. Books and magical artifacts overflowing upon the shelves….
There’d been trouble recently in the nearby village of Swinetown. A great and terrible beast, a bear with hair of silver, had taken to terrorizing the villagers. Rumor told it had already claimed the life of the Village Elder and more were, no doubt, to come. But the influx of orders for protection spells and luck charms had kept Rosemary too busy to worry. After all, here in her swamp, everything was perfectly peaceful.
Perfectly peaceful… and perfectly lonely.
Then, the door burst into a thousand splinters.
A silver bear, snarling and gnashing its teeth, crashed backside-first onto the floor. A woman leapt atop it. A woman with wildly cropped hair, a torn tunic, and blood streaming down her cheeks. Take cover, the woman shouted, her sword glinting in the firelight. It’ll kill you if it gets the chance.
Steel clashed against claw and fang as Rosemary cowered in a corner. The books and artifacts tumbled from the shelves. The herbs scattered to dust. The bubbling cauldron overturned. And the air thickened with the sweet, sickening stench of sweat and blood.
The bear’s massive paw descended, knocking the swordswoman aside. Her weapon slid across the room as she crumpled, limp as a rag doll, against the wall.
Rosemary dropped to the ground, her hands scrambling over the cold stone floor as the bear advanced. By some miracle—call it Bog’s will or pure dumb luck—the fingers of her right hand curled around the fallen woman’s sword while the fingers of her left found the smooth surface of a white flute, a powerful magical artifact Rosemary had been gifted just months prior after she aided a princess in disguise. Her first instinct was to choose the sword, for though she was no warrior surely steel made a better defense than music.
But a spark, a tiny glimmer of recognition behind the glare in the bear’s feral eyes, stayed Rosemary’s hand. She changed course. She cast aside the sword and picked up the flute.
Then, she played.
The notes came out weak. Weak and shrill, for though the flute was exquisitely crafted, Rosemary lacked the skill to unlock the magic within. Still, she played from the heart. And she chose her song well. A local melody, beloved by the villagers of Swinetown. A melody Rosemary had heard sung many evenings in Swinetown Tavern by none other than the missing Village Elder.
Though the flute’s magic failed, the song worked. But only just, for as the bear collapsed, it lashed out with one final blow that cracked the instrument cleanly in two. As the bear writhed upon the floor, beast gave way to woman. A woman with long silver hair. The Swinetown Village Elder who, it would later be revealed, had been cursed by a rival who then hired a passing monster hunter to slay the “beast.”
I would have killed her, the swordswoman later said. I would have killed her believing she was a monster. She sank to her knees, sweeping Rosemary’s hands into her own. You prevented my becoming a murderer. How can I possibly repay you?
When no amount of shooing would convince the woman that no debt was owed, Rosemary at last conceded. Make me a flute, she ordered. To replace the one your battle destroyed.
And so the woman cut a branch off the nightwood tree in the front yard and began to carve.
What’s your name? Rosemary asked as the woman worked.
Rosemary blinked. Your name’s—Twig?
Like a… thin little limb on a tree?
Yeah…. The woman—Twig—flinched as if expecting some rebuff.
I like it, Rosemary assured. It’s a charming name.
You—really think so?
Of course. Twig. Absolutely lovely. Rosemary curled a ringlet of black hair around her brown finger, hesitating a moment, before adding, The women of my family have gone by plant-based names for generations—lots of Ivys and Daisys and Willows and Ferns—but I’ve never once heard mention of a Twig. It’s—unique. Refreshing. I can’t say it suits you though. You look more a Log or a Trunk than a Twig—oh, I hope that isn’t rude.
Naw. Twig was grinning now. I picked it myself, you see. When I was a teen. It fit better then. She laughed, a lovely rumbling sound. I was kind of a scrappy kid, ya know? But I’ve bulked up a fair bit now, as you can see. She flexed her biceps for emphasis.
Yes, said Rosemary, eyeing Twig’s arms. I can see. A hot rush of blood flooded Rosemary’s cheeks. She tucked the ringlet of hair behind her ear, taking the opportunity to discreetly wipe the blush from her face with a quick incantation. I’m Rosemary, by the way.
Rosemary and Twig. That has a nice ring. You ever thought of taking up monster hunting? You’ve a knack for it, you know.
I can’t say I’ve ever considered it.
Maybe you should.
Rosemary chewed her lower lip, thinking of the monstrous bear that had not been a monster at all. Have you ever considered an alternative to monster ‘hunting?’ she said. Monster… relocation? Perhaps?
As Rosemary started on the final verse, a familiar weight settled over her shoulders. She opened her eyes, forcing her mind back to the present.
There, in the center of the room, the specter hummed and swayed in shuffling circles. The flames around its bones had receded to a mere smolder of smoke curling from its nostrils, earholes, and eye sockets.
Twig stood by Rosemary’s side, her arm around Rosemary’s shoulder and her sword back at her hip. Though her face was flushed and her hair matted with sweat and melted frost, she flashed Rosemary a grin and an enthusiastic double-thumbs up.
Rosemary smiled in return, her lips peeling back from the moist wood of the flute—which caused the final note of her melody to ring out sour.
The specter flinched. Halting its ghostly dance, it turned stiffly to face Rosemary, fire flicking dangerously from its eye sockets. After a tense moment’s stare, it growled, in that metallic screech of a voice, “ACCEPTABLE.”
Then, it turned those flaming eyes to Twig, looking her up and down before speaking: “YOU, SING.”
Twig’s eyebrows jumped to the tippy-top of her forehead. She glanced to her left. Then to her right. And finally back to the specter. “Who, me?” She jabbed a finger at her own chest.
The color drained fully from Twig’s face as she turned, mouth hanging helplessly open, to Rosemary.
“I’m pretty sure it’s GamGam,” Rosemary whispered. “Ida did warn me that her grandmother demands a song and dance of everyone.”
“And you’re sure she meant that literally?” hissed Twig through clenched teeth.
“Would you rather go back to fighting a flaming ghost?”
A tickle in the back of Rosemary’s throat slipped out as a giggle before she could swallow it down. She clamped her mouth shut, twisting the corners into an apologetic grimace, and laid a hand on her wife’s arm. “You did say you’d sing if it came to it.”
Twig swallowed. “I did say that.”
“Just one quick song,” said Rosemary, raising the flute once more to her lips. “I’ll even accompany you.”
Bowing her head, Twig filled her lungs to the brink and then slowly let the breath out. “All right—but I’m not singing the Table of Elementals song. GamGam didn’t say anything about alchemistry.” After a weak smile, she turned to face the specter and, raising her hands, began to clap a slow, steady beat. “T-ten brave knights, marching in a line,” she sang, voice and body quivering. “A dragon blasts one to a crisp and now they’re nine.”
Rosemary knew the song. (Of course she knew the song. Every child in the realm knew the tune of “Ten Brave Knights”.) She joined in, her fingers dancing on the flute as she blew light, bouncy notes.
“Nine brave knights, strut through the castle gate. Someone tips hot oil on one and now they’re eight.” Perhaps emboldened by the accompaniment, Twig’s voice, cracked and nasally though it was, boomed, filling every nook of the cellar with… noise. “Eight brave knights, creep through the forest Elven. One takes an arrow to the back and now they’re seven.”
The specter’s—GamGam’s—flaming eyes were cooling. So much so that when a ghoul dragged off the fifth knight while he was crossing the moors, the fire in her sockets had simmered to a soft glow. And when Twig belted out the demise of the second-to-last brave knight (gobbled up by an ogre that weighed more than a ton), GamGam’s pupils once again twinkled like distant stars. Then, at last, the last discordant syllable passed Twig’s lips. Grinning, she let out a whoop, thwacking the air with her fist.
An awkward silence enveloped the cellar. Her smile fading, Twig looked to Rosemary. Rosemary in turn looked to GamGam. And GamGam, lifting a skeletal arm, beckoned the two of them with a single bony finger.
Creak. Creak. Creak.
After exchanging anxious nodes, Rosemary and Twig approached. Leaning in, they waited for GamGam to speak.
Instead, two clawed hands darted forward to snatch them each by the ear.
“Where in the name of bog did you two troublemakers learn your manners? Running around pouring green goop on good, law-abiding citizens? Drawing swords on sweet, defenseless old ladies? You’re just lucky i like your twiddly little flute playing and offkey singing else i’d give you both a piece of my mind, you mark my words.”
Rosemary and Twig slumped against each other on the cellar stairs, rubbing their aching earlobes while Ida cried into her grandmother’s ribcage.
“But GamGam, why?” asked Ida between sobs. “Why haven’t you moved on to the afterlife? Why return to ransack my cellar?”
GamGam raised her skull. When she spoke, it was with a flustered sort of rumble, as if she was trying (but ultimately failing) not to sound horrifying. “Because, well….” She swept her starlight gaze to her granddaughter. “I cannot face my dear edgar. Not yet.”
“Can’t face pawpaw?” Ida’s forehead knitted. “Gamgam, whatever did you do?”
“Nothing like that child,” said gamgam with a dismissive wave. “I cannot face him in stones and bones. I’m out of practice, you see. Haven’t played a single game since he passed. Meanwhile he’s had decades of practice in the tea houses of bog’s green underworld, playing against the greatest masters in the history of the game. How can i face him knowing full well i’m gonna get my ass whooped? Nope. I’ve gotta train first.” She paused, looking down at her clawed hands. “I’m here because i—i wanted my old stones and bones set. You know, the one i gave you all those years ago? I know you never much cared for the game, but i’d hoped you’d saved it. Tucked it away somewhere down here. Forgotten.”
Ida’s mouth dropped open. She swept a sleeve across her wet eyes before slipping from gamgam’s skeletal arms. Then, she raced up the stairs, practically leaping over rosemary and twig’s heads as she went.
As ida’s thundering footsteps faded, rosemary offered gamgam a tentative smile.
Gamgam crossed her arms and turned away, tapping her boney toes on the floor with a clickity-clack-clack.
“Apparently,” whispered twig, leaning close, “we’re still in time out.”
Rosemary tried, unsuccessfully to hide a snicker behind her hand.
Biting their lips to hold back laughter, rosemary and twig waited in silence until ida crashed back down the stairs.
“I have it!” She thrust her find—a plain wooden box—into gamgam’s claws. “The stones and bones set. I’ve kept it in my room, on my bedside table, ever since you gave it to me.”
“All those years?” Gamgam rumbled happily. “Even though you don’t play?”
“It was important to you,” said ida, folding her hands over gamgam’s claws. “I wanted to honor that. But gamgam—if you came back looking for the stones and bones set, why didn’t you just knock on the front door and ask me for it?”
“Didn’t want to be a bother.”
Ida blinked. Then, slowly, with the elegance of a deflating balloon, doubled over with wheezing laughter.
Gamgam laughed as well, a horrible booming sound that rattled the very stones of the walls.
“Gamgam, i was thinking,” said ida upon recovering from her bout of hilarity, “if you need to practice your stones and bones, you could, well, you know…” she paused, fidgeting with the fabric of her dress. “…Stick around awhile? Maybe teach me the rules? We could practice. Together.”
The stars in gamgam’s eye sockets twinkled. “I would like that,” she said, wrapping a boney arm around her granddaughter’s wiry shoulders. “I would like that very much.”
Rosemary nudged her wife—and tried not to chuckle at the sight of twig’s wide eyes swimming in joyful tears. “I believe,” she whispered, “that this is our cue to exit.”
“Yeah.” Twig sniffled. “You’re probably right.”
They made it halfway up the stairs before ida caught up with them.
“We’re ever so grateful,” she said, slipping a sack of coins into twig’s pocket. “The payment, as promised.”
Twig fished the bag right out. “Feels a bit heavy,” she said, testing the weight in her hand. She extracted a few coins—“that should do it”—and tossed the sack back to ida.
Though ida fussed, as grateful clients always did, twig successfully managed to negotiate the payment down to only a quarter of their typical monster removal rate by arguing that, technically, there hadn’t been any monster to remove from ida’s cellar. Just a benign (if very crotchety) ghostly grandmother.
As rosemary and twig strolled, shoulders bumping, back to the local tavern, twig flipped a coin toward the moonlit sky. Rosemary resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Twig loved to talk about earning extra pocket money from these late night monster relocations for the locals of whatever village they happened to be staying in—and then inevitably refused to accept the full payment after the job was completed. A smile tugged at the corners of rosemary’s mouth. Twig’s reckless generosity was, after all, one of the many annoying reasons she’d fallen in love.
When she tilted her head for a glimpse of her wife’s (annoyingly) beautiful face, she found twig watching her with that look. The one where her eyes crinkled into contented crescent-moons and her lips parted just enough to reveal a tantalizing sliver of teeth.
Rosemary leaned in for a kiss and did not pull away until her tongue had counted every one of her wife’s teeth three times over. “Twig, darling,” she said, biting her own lower lip as she skipped her fingers down her wife’s chest, “will you do me one favor, tonight, please?”
Twig grinned, her tan, freckled cheeks flushing cherry-red. “Anything.”
“Really?” Rosemary nestled her head into the crook of twig’s neck. “Anything?”
“Then please, please”—rosemary failed to stifle a burst of laughter. She never could finish her own jokes without giggling—“serenade me to sleep tonight with another one of your spine-tingling renditions of ‘ten brave knights’.”
Twig rolled her eyes in a full, dizzying circle. “Anything for you, rosie,” she said and planted a wet smooch on rosemary’s forehead. “Anything for you.”