“Welcome to Melbourne,” the stewardess says brightly, smiling oh-so-pleasantly as I brush past her to get off the plane. “We hope you enjoyed your flight.”
I fight the urge to roll my eyes, and smile weakly back at her. She’s been nothing but pleasant to me for the entire flight. Of course, she might not have if she knew what I really am, but there’s a reason I keep that hidden.
The airport lounge is mostly empty. Being first off the plane is just one of the perks of flying first class. With no luggage to collect, and no reason to declare anything to customs, I’m free to just walk out.
Three men fixate on me as I walk through, their gazes stern and suspicious. To them, I offer the warmest, most insincere smile in my arsenal. It’s not enough to deter them, and they move to block my path.
“This way please, ma’am,” the tallest says. He has a slightly crooked nose, and a face marked by years of picked-at acne.
“I’d really rather not,” I respond, as I move to duck around him. “In a hurry. You understand.”
Another of the men, shorter and thinner, flicks his wrist, and a baton extends. The small stone at the end glows purple in my presence.
“You’re in violation of the Registration Act,” says the third of the men, notable mostly for how nondescript he is. He’d have made a good spy, if only he’d taken a different career path. Apparently the siren call of oppressing magical folk was too strong to resist, though.
A quick analysis of the situation. The tall man wears a ring, the short man a necklace. The bland man has no visible display of anti-magic jewelry, though that doesn’t preclude the possibility. They’ll likely see through any illusion I conjure.
I sigh, drawing magical energy close to me, weaving a glamour around myself. The ring and necklace begin to glow, reacting to my trick. The short man’s grip tightens on his baton, eager to administer his justice.
They can see the threads of magic wrapped around me, know that whatever I show them is a lie. They don’t see the threads I’ve extended above me, and when the ceiling collapses on them, they realise too late that it’s not real.
As they cower and throw themselves out of the way, I continue to walk. By the time the enforcers have realised it was a trick, I’m lost in a crowd.
I slide into a taxi, glamour firmly in place, and give the driver the address. If I need to be back in Melbourne, I’ll at least start the trip in the least unbearable place in the city.
“You really should register, you know,” she says, appearing in the seat beside me. The driver doesn’t notice, doesn’t see the projection.
“You should mind your own business,” I mutter, reinforcing the glamour, making sure the driver heard nothing.
“So long as you’re in my city, it is my business,” she says gently, though I know her patience is limited.
“Don’t worry, I’m not planning on staying. Why don’t you just tell me what you’re really here for, Lisandra?”
She knows better than to try to lecture me. I’ve never listened before, and I don’t plan to start any time soon. Which means she wants something different.
“Tai believes we have a situation,” she says. “I need you to come in and talk to her about it.”
“Why me? I don’t work for you. Never have.”
She’s already gone, and somehow that’s worse. She isn’t giving me the chance to argue it.
I consider, briefly, the option of changing my plans, going straight to her office. The idea barely lasts a block. If it’s that important, she’ll make sure I can’t avoid it.
The taxi pulls up in front of the building, and I place the money in the driver’s hand. It would have been so easy to simply pass him illusory money, but I had plenty and chances were, he didn’t.
The taxi peels away, and I wait on the street until it’s out out sight. The bar is shrouded in a glamour, and it looks weird to humans when we just disappear off the street. Plus, I don’t know what’s waiting for me on the inside. I’m vaguely concerned they’ll remember the last time I was here.
I wrap the glamour tighter around myself, and walk through the door. If anyone notices me enter, they don’t show it. I breathe a sigh of relief, a breath that catches in my throat when I see her waiting for me.
Tai is older than I am, but not by much. She’s wearing a short purple dress under a spiked leather jacket, with ripped black tights and tall, dark boots. Her lips are curled into an expectant smirk.
“I figured this would be your first stop,” she says, staring right through my glamour.
“Did Lisandra send you?” I ask, ignoring her greeting. I wave down a bartender, more interesting in drinking than talking.
“Of course,” she says, sliding a glass across to me. The bartender catches her eye, and walks away.
“Can I at least enjoy a drink before you ruin my trip?” I complain, snatching the glass before it can be taken away.
“Life is hard for a renegade Witch on the run,” she teases, pouting.
“I am not on the run. I just don’t feel like being tagged and catalogued. I didn’t think that made me such a terrible person.”
Tai regards me with a sort of weary patience, then shakes her head. She’s an inquisitor, the height of magical law enforcement. The very idea of her standing here, having this conversation with me, would turn so many heads, if only they knew.
“You’re not a terrible person, Chloe,” she says, exasperated. “Just a little naive, maybe.”
I smile without humour, and upend the glass, gulping down the contents. It burns the back of my throat, leaving a slightly metallic flavour that only comes from a sprinkling of powdered witchstone.
I shake my head as the burning sensation ripples through me, causing my entire body to twitch. I feel my glamour shimmer and warp before snapping back into place.
“I’ll never understand why you enjoy that stuff,” Tai says disapprovingly.
“What’s the situation?” I ask, ignoring her judgement. “More stray witchlings need tracking down and convincing to join-“
“There’s been a murder,” she says darkly. I can tell from her tone she’s not in the mood to joke about it.
“One of us?”
“The victim is human,” she says, telling me just enough to fill in the blanks myself.
“Shit.” I wave down the bartender, silently demanding another drink. “Who’s our culprit?”
“I don’t know,” she tells me, looking down. That’s unusual. It’s her job to know. And if she doesn’t know, Lisandra doesn’t know. That’s even more worrying.
The bartender places a glass in front of me, a swirling orange and green liquid with the tiniest amount of smoke bubbling out of it. I take it and greedily pour the lot down my throat.
“I’m gonna need more to go on than that,” I tell her, wishing my curiosity wasn’t so easily piqued. Not that I had a choice regardless, but it annoyed me that I could be so easily swayed.
“The police won’t give me access to the reports,” she says, an undercurrent of anger rising through her tone. “I saw the body, but only after their team had been all across it, muddying the waters.”
“Cause of death?”
“It’s gruesome,” she says, already grimacing. “Blood was frozen. Just the blood. You can picture the rest.”
“Charming,” I mutter. “Definitely sounds like a Witch. You’ve already compiled a list of everyone in Melbourne that could do it?”
I already know she has. She’s good at her job, and very clever.
“Compiled, tracked down and questioned,” she confirms. “It wasn’t any of them.”
“A drifter?” I offer, knowing her answer before she says it.
“Lisandra would know. There’s nobody unknown in the city. Even the witchlings that haven’t come forward yet, she knows.”
I can see her mind turning, trying to understand. My own is going through much the same process, though with less information, I see different possibilities.
“Why me?” I ask. “I’m no inquisitor, and I hate getting involved.”
“I need to see the reports,” she says immediately. “You can trick and charm your way through.”
“You want me to break the law?”
She glares at me, hating not that I said it, but that it’s true. I smirk, and she shoves my shoulder, half playfully, half violently.
“If I need to break a law to save lives, then that’s what I’ll do,” she says. “I have Lisandra’s approval. We do what we must to protect our people.”
“Now you’re speaking my language,” I say. “Come on, let’s go mess with some humans.”