Dreadful tales are told about Madame Darke, ones designed to discourage people from seeking her out. Of course, like the many cautionary tales about using drugs, drinking too much, and promiscuous sex, few listen. After all, she has magic that will short-circuit many immediate problems.
So many little cures for little problems and all for small favors. Bring her tea, and that test you were certain to fail is passed although the knowledge is never yours. Bring her cake, and that acne marring your face is gone, and your complexion perfect. Confidence accompanies your next encounter with those you desire to desire you in return. Bring her a cat, and that little sore contracted in some lustful embrace disappears and so forth. There are no consequences for your failure to study, your vanity, or poor judgment, none that you can see as she gathers little bits of your soul, painlessly extracting them. Oh, if you need your enemy to disappear, the favor is bigger than a cat, but she can do that as well.
I spent most of this week in Madame Darke’s company, trying to understand her motives. The woman seemed so inclined to help for a rare jasmine tea. I suppose my coffee addiction is not so different than her tea obsession. Her cottage is crawling with felines, but it is snakes that slither among her books. I wonder how it is all those snakes, so many of them, are not enough to warn her many visitors that perhaps the price to cure their little nagging complaints might be much higher than they imagine.
I needed to flee for myself. Snakes scare me more than my desire to see what books she keeps in her library. Young Husk Grayvesone felt differently, a lonely, fat boy whose love for books far outweighed his fear of serpents.
“Are they magic books?” Husk asked.
“All books are magic,” Madame Darke said.
I would have said the same to the boy, but snakes do not guard my library. It is open to all. Still, Husk acquired access to Madame Darke’s books without giving much away. Of course, he had not sought her out intentionally. His cruel classmates had driven him into the forest with their bullying, and he accepted the old wicker woman’s invitation into her little cottage out of despair and a need to hide away for a time.
Madame Darke sent him away with books in his arms, his promise to return them and to do favors for her from time to time. I do not think Madame Darke realizes that little black cat also left with Husk or that the one book she gave him to keep, one in which few pages had any content, was the most valuable thing in all of the world. Madame Darke never counts her cats and she sees little value in a blank page.
I wonder if the snakes ever eat the cats or the reverse. Have you seen a cat with a snake in its jaws? I believe I have, but it might have been my imagination. I have no wish to return to the cottage to find out. Husk, I fear, must return a time or two before the end.
I do worry what will become of it all. Madame Darke has a world to enslave using little but a slight of hand. A pimple hidden with illusion that given time, would have gone away on its own; a venereal disease taken from the body and encased in the soul that might have been vanquished with proper medicine for a fist of coin, a death in exchange for long life in Madame Darke’s service, riches that do nothing to obscure a fading ability to feel joy or see in the light. I do wonder. Madame Darke has so many in her service now. I pray Husk escapes her reach, but maybe, it is already too late. We shall see.