The first few minutes are awkward. Like introducing superheroes at a cocktail party where they’re wearing their alter ego disguises. Everyone here knows who they are, but we’re just going to pretend otherwise. It’s Vanessa and Marius, a couple of regular people who’re going to help us solve our problem.
I’m setting up the tea caddy with Marius—the others being in the dining room—when Ellie meows at the window. Marius’s brows shoot up.
“Sorry,” I say. “I brought a cat. Well, Jonathan did, but she’s mine. I’ll just leave her outside.”
“Better not,” he says. “I have dogs, and they’ll be let out soon.”
I open my mouth and then shut it. His brows rise again.
“I was biting back a joke about letting loose the dogs of war,” I say.
He smiles. “Yes, I have dogs. Big dogs. They were in the kennel while you guys were outside, but my stable hand will be letting them out soon to roam the property. You won’t want your cat out then.”
“True. You’re probably attached to your dogs.”
He laughs. “I am. And to be honest, your cat might be able to inflict some damage on them right now.” His expression turns serious. “They were drugged. I had them in the kennel last night so they wouldn’t bother you when you arrived. I should have let them out after that. Things might have been different if . . .” A sharp shake of his head. “No, if I did, I might have lost them, too. They know Havoc so she was able to toss drugged meat into their kennel. They’re woozy but fine. Which is more than I can say for . . .”
He waves it off. “Enough of that. Go let your kitty in. That’ll give the dogs some fun later, smelling a cat in their house.”
I open the door for Ellie, and she struts in like she owns the place . . . and then smells the canine residents, hisses and shoots under the nearest chair. I shake my head and return my attention to the tea caddy, which we’ve set up on a table, with both my unweaving kit and Ani’s waiting nearby.
The others join us, Jonathan and Vanessa deep in conversation. Vanessa stops short.
“Dear Lord,” she says. “That is a travesty of craftsmanship.”
“I was just thinking how cute it was,” Marius says. “A kitty tea caddy.”
“No,” Vanessa says as she sets down her coffee. “Just no.”
“Sorry, I’m with Marius on this one,” I say. “But you and Aiden can shudder together over it. What’d you call it, Connolly? A kitschy piece of trash?”
Marius sputters. “It’s Victorian rosewood. Whatever you think of the design—which I maintain is cute—it’s hardly trash.”
“Right?” I say. “It’s quality antique workmanship. The real workmanship, though, is the curse. That’s why I was loath to remove it. It’s an expert weaving.”
Ani’s brows rise as she looks from me to the box and back.
“Don’t give me that look,” I say. “A jinx can be fine art.”
“Not questioning that. I’ve had the lecture. Just . . . Well, it’s an odd canvas for a master, isn’t it? Cursing a cat tea caddy with a cat hair jinx? It’s a little . . .”
“Kitschy?” I shrug. Then I turn to the others. “Specializing in the joker’s jinx requires a certain personality, which is why our mom and Yiayia got me hooked on jinxes. It’s part innate talent and part personality match. I’d argue that a jinx specialist—even a master of the art—is going to have an off-kilter sense of humor and a taste for, yes, kitsch.”
“But the fact it’s an expert jinx means something, doesn’t it?” Jonathan says. “It’s a rare specialty, usually avoided by serious weavers. No offense, Kay.”
“None taken. Your point, however, is taken. So I’ll ask Ani for a second opinion.”
I step back from the table and wave Ani up. Our methods in weaving, as in most things, are different. I’m attuned to the music, those whispered threads to be followed and untangled. I remember talking about that when I was young and new to curse weaving. I figured it was the same for every weaver. Like the process of riding a bike. Ani had just stared at me.
“Music? What music? It’s a problem. Like a mathematical equation.”
Mom and Yiayia explained that different weavers experience curses in different ways. Ani didn’t actually see numbers, but it felt like when she was working out a math problem. I don’t hear real music—it just feels that way. And for Hope, it’s like opening a book, a story leaping off the pages.
Different experiences mean different methods. I listen and absorb and mentally follow strains of music like threads in a tapestry. Ani leans over the box, staring at it. Then her gloved hands open the lid and turn the box over and poke and prod. Solving the puzzle her way.
Finally she sets it down and turns to me, looking slightly dazed. “That is . . .” She blinks and rubs her wrist over her eyes. “Unexpected.”
“Am I right then? It’s a master class in curse weaving.”
She nods. “I’m not sure I’ve even encountered anything quite like it. Certainly not in a jinx.”
“No offense, Kay,” I murmur.
“You know what I mean. And I hope you also know what I mean when I say this isn’t like any jinx I’ve encountered. You’re good. Really good. But this is . . .”
“I’m a decent journeyman. This is the work of a master. Way beyond my skill.”
“Beyond your unweaving skill?” Connolly cuts in, sounding puzzled.
He’s been quiet until now. He does that, I’ve realized. Receding into the background to observe and assimilate. The guy I met that first morning seemed like the sort who’d always be in the middle of any room, making his opinions known. That can be Connolly, when it suits him. And this is him, too, when it suits, when he’s acknowledging he’s not the professional in this sphere.
I shake my head. “I can unweave it easily enough. It’s . . . hard to explain. Like building a house of Lego. You can jam the pieces into a log cabin shape or you can recreate the Taj Mahal. Both are just as easy to break down. In that case, though, everyone would see the difference. This is . . .”
“Like keeping your ledgers neat—tidy handwriting, color-coded headings, annotated categories . . .” Ani says. “That doesn’t affect the actual figures, but another accountant would see and appreciate the difference.”
“Ultimately,” I say. “It means nothing for the uncursing. We’re just admiring the workmanship. We might not agree on the caddy itself, but we can agree on that.”
“It does mean something, though,” Connolly says. “A limited number of people could have woven that jinx. I know when I was asking around, your name was the one that kept popping up.”
“That’s flattering,” I say. “It’d be more flattering if it wasn’t such a limited field of expertise. My guess is that we aren’t dealing with an expert in jinxes. It’s an expert curse weaver overall. I can weave any curse. I’m just best at jinxes. Anyway, enough speculation on that. Whoever sent this either hired an expert weaver or got hold of a pre-jinxed tea caddy, meaning whoever wove it is long dead.” *
I glance at the others. “Okay, glove up and take a look. We’re trying to find clues on the box unconnected to the weaving. Secret hatches. Coded messages. Whatever.”
Vanessa goes first. Then Connolly, Jonathan and Marius. Each takes their time. This is a puzzle, after all, and everyone here has the curiosity and the ego to want to be the one who solves it. Marius has laid out a tiny screwdriver—like the sort used to repair glasses—to let us carefully poke and pry without damaging the caddy. We spent a half-hour at it, only to conclude that the tea caddy is just a tea caddy. Cursed, yes, but otherwise unremarkable.
That means it’s time to tackle that one remarkable thing.
I pull on gloves. “I really hate doing this. Feels like smashing a priceless vase.”
“I could unweave it,” Ani says. “If you’d prefer.”
“I’d prefer not to unweave it at all. But since this caddy seems significant and we can’t find any other clues, it seems someone wanted it uncursed. So that’s what I’m going to do.”
I take out my kit. As Connolly has pointed out, I don’t always need it. I can weave—and unweave minor curses—without it. That impressed him, but it hardly makes me a super-charged weaver. Ani has argued it makes me a reckless one. The kit is for our safety. It contains herbs and charms to protect us against a backfire.
Ani always uses her kit, even for the simplest curses. To her, it’s like snapping on gloves. Easily done, so why not protect yourself? Yet there are times when you don’t have your kit and really need to cast a minor curse—like jinxing a police officer’s coffee cup into a dribble glass. Ani sees the kit as a bike helmet, always essential. I see it as training wheels, and I want to learn to operate without it. That means learning precision and care, the opposite of recklessness.
Whatever our philosophies, this isn’t the time to practice my parachute-free weaving. I arrange the herbs and charms in a protective circle around the tea caddy. Then I adjust the desk lamp Marius supplied. I examine the caddy, as if it’s the first time I’ve done this, running my gloved hands over it.
When the first notes of the curse slide toward me, I close my eyes and focus on them. This is always tricky. My brain insists I’ve already done this and wants to leap ahead to the unweaving. I’m impatient by nature, and this feels like studying a textbook page after I’ve already memorized it. I have to remind myself that curses are indeed more like music, open to interpretation, each listening a new discovery. I must hear this melody again, unhindered by my memory of it.
There are lessons to be learned here. Take my time and appreciate the work of a master. Follow the tune, unweave the threads. Find the dangling end. There it is, tucked under another thread. Tease it out and—
The end catches. It’s the tiniest catch, one that I wouldn’t have even noticed if I weren’t so focused. After all, it’s a minor curse. I could unweave it with all the skill of a five-year-old ripping open birthday presents. Yet I’m feeling my way with care and when that tug catches, just a little, I pause.
The world contracts to this curse. I don’t hear the others shifting and breathing. I don’t even feel the tea caddy under my gloved hands. It is just me and that thread, and I swear it takes shape in front of my eyes, a tiny golden thread that seems so innocent and shiny, only to rear back and flash fangs.
I blink. There is no thread, of course. Certainly no snake. That’s my imagination, and maybe it has something to do with the baby copperheads last night, but my gut says it doesn’t. I’m sensing something that my weaver’s intuition fancifully re-imagines as a snake.
“No,” the curse seems to whisper. “There’s nothing wrong here. Just pretty golden threads, tied so masterfully. A simple curse, expertly woven. There’s beauty in simplicity, isn’t there? No need to look deeper.”
I snort under my breath. A sound behind me, and I turn to see Connolly rocking forward, Ani’s glower telling him not to disturb me. His eyes meet mine, and they’re troubled. Concerned.
“There’s something odd here,” I say. “Let me try again.” Now Ani’s the one rocking forward, and I raise a gloved hand. “I’ll be careful.”
I lay my hands on the caddy and close my eyes again. I don’t rush the process. Now I have reason for patience. The curse reappears, those pretty golden threads, the loose end dangling so innocently.
Nothing odd here. Come give me a tug.
I touch the thread. Then I take it gingerly and—
That resistance again. It’s slight, and I know I could pull through. I also know I shouldn’t. Instead, I work other threads, nudging them aside. There’s something in this artful tangle. Something hidden—
And there it is.
“Oh, you tricky bastard,” I whisper. “Almost got me, didn’t you?”
“Kennedy?” Connolly says.
I turn to them. “There’s a hidden curse. Like a grenade. If I tried to uncurse the outer one, I’d have triggered a bigger curse.”
“Then leave it,” Ani says. “This has nothing to do with Hope—”
I lift my hand. “We don’t know that. I’ll be careful, but I want a closer look.”
Her mouth opens to argue, but a glance from Jonathan stops her. I tune that out and return to the curse. Ani’s right—this almost certainly has nothing to do with Hope or the necklace. In speculating otherwise, I’m defending simple curiosity. But I can’t help it. This curse gets more interesting by the second, and it’s not as if we’re under a time crunch. We aren’t even going to be told where to meet Havoc until late this afternoon.
So I play with the curse, nudging back those golden threads from that hard wire below. Then I start in on that one, urging it to play its own tune. The outer jinx drowns it out. Like a two-person pickpocket team, one distracting my attention while the other quietly robs me blind.
No matter how hard I focus, I can’t tease out that second melody. I ask Ani to try, and she does, but she isn’t able to even see the hidden curse.
“I’m no good at jinxes,” she says. “I can pick up the cat-hair one, but that’s it.”
There’s only one thing to do then. And I do it fast, before anyone can stop me. Whip off a glove and touch the caddy barehanded. Both Ani and Connolly leap forward, but it’s too late. My fingers are pressed skin to wood.
The threads dazzle now, the music crystal clear. When I push past the outer jinx, the inner curse starts a whispering song.
“Oh,” I murmur. “You cheeky little devil.”
I ignore the shifting of the others behind me, their movements betraying their impatience. This is a song for two, a melody for my ears only, and I must give it my undivided attention. When I finally pull back, I’m grinning.
“You’ve solved it?” Vanessa asks.
“Nope. But I know what it is. Gambler’s Gambit.”
Connolly frowns. “Gambler’s . . .”
“Gambit. An opening chess play. Put your pawns in danger in hopes of gaining the advantage.”
“I know what a gambit is. I just haven’t heard of that sort of curse.”
“It’s related to the jinx,” I say. “Kissing cousins. The gambit is much rarer, because it requires serious skill. It’s a weaver’s game. A challenge.”
His brows crease. “For the owner of the object?”
“No, it’s a challenge—usually a friendly one—to another weaver. I said the inner curse was like a grenade. That’s not quite accurate. The inner curse is the gambit. What it says is that I have two choices. I can unweave the cat-hair jinx, and the tea caddy will be fine. Or I can gamble and try unweaving the inner curse for a bigger reward.”
“Which is?” Connolly says.
I shrug. “No idea. That’s part of the gamble.”
“And if you fail?”
“Then the original jinx stays on permanently, and the inner one locks—it can’t be unwoven to win the prize. The gamble is whether I bother trying for the gambit or just play it safe and remove the cat-hair jinx. In this case, it’s not really a question. The curse is a minor one. I don’t risk much if it stays on. So it’s a friendly challenge, first to see whether I notice the gambit and then whether I can unweave it.”
“It was a test then,” Jonathan says. “Someone else, presumably interested in the necklace, was testing your skill.”
“Meaning it’s pointless now,” Ani says. “We’re far past the point of caring who else wanted the necklace. We just need to uncurse it.”
“I’m going to work on this,” I say. “You guys can go discuss the plan for tonight.”
“Is there a plan?” Jonathan says. “Besides trying to uncurse the necklace? I don’t see that there’s much else to strategize about. Havoc put the necklace on Hope, but she’s not going to leave it there. If she did, we’d try to take Hope and run. She’ll keep them separate. Rescue Hope, and she’ll be stuck with the curse. Even then, I don’t think there’s much point fleeing with Hope. Havoc isn’t going to keep her if you fail to uncurse the necklace.”
“Is that what we expect?” Ani says, glancing at Marius and Vanessa. “If we fail with the necklace, she’ll turn over Hope and . . .” A look Connolly’s way.
“Rian,” he says. “Havoc doesn’t seem to be threatening to kill them if we fail. But I’m not sure she’s thought that one through.”
“She hasn’t thought anything through,” Vanessa says. “That’s the problem dealing with Havoc. She’s making this up as she goes.”
“Presumably,” Marius says, “if you can’t uncurse the necklace, she’ll return your siblings, but Hope will stay cursed.”
Vanessa shakes her head. “There will be more. She’ll realize she hasn’t thought this through and come up with another threat. But Jonathan is right. At this point, I don’t see backup plans. The goal is to uncurse the necklace. That’s Havoc’s goal and, with Hope cursed, it’s also yours. The only potential ‘plan’ is to be prepared for an unweaving.”
“I’m prepared,” I say. “Well, as much as I can be. I could use some sleep. And I’ll want to ask more questions about the necklace. But right now, I’d like to work on this. It’ll help me as much as anything.”
“A distraction,” Vanessa says. “All right then. We’ll leave you to it, so we aren’t hanging over your shoulder.”
“I’d like to stay,” Connolly says. “If that’s all right. I’ll be quiet.”
Ani starts to say she’ll stay too, but I shake my head.
“It isn’t dangerous,” I say. “And I know you think I’m wasting my time. I can focus better if you’re doing something you feel is helpful.”
She hesitates, and then nods, and a few moments later, they’re gone, leaving me with Connolly and the curse.
* an earlier chapter said the box was jinxed during it’s creation. That’ll be changed. Kennedy can still speculate on that, but it’ll ultimately be proven false