“Just so we’re all clear,” the dark-skinned man warned as he accepted the bowl, “it’s not like I need food or water to survive down here.”
“You seem to be eating it all the same.”
“Umh? That’s because it’s delicious.” Noticing her frown for the first time, he spins the chopsticks around and jabs the air pointedly. “You don’t know much about being a witch do you?”
Varla felt the heat in her face, but to her own surprise she snapped back instead of recoiling from the accusation. “I knew enough to capture you.”
Joseph waved the objection away while raising the bowl to eye level with his other hand. “Clarity of terms is essential.” He slowly turned the bowl as he examined it. “This food is appreciated, but it is not required. Were an Obligation to take hold, I would repay it with soup and not with my life.”
The young witch paused in thought as the strange man resumed eating once more.
“I’ve never been able to snare a person before. Until now it’s only worked on things, like toys or clothing.”
“Mmh. Well, that’s the key insight there. A witch must think of people as things in order to control them. My race, skin color, dialect, all these help you ignore our shared humanity. Don’t worry, it’ll become easier as you get older.”
“I don’t know if I want to… to think of people like that.”
“It’s just a part of growing up as a witch. You need to start practicing your narcissism now, not just your magic, if you want to grasp true strength. Would you like some advice?”
She nods haltingly, her expression troubled.
“First, the tall orphan. Kedrick. He’s going to be a liability. A natural leader, and far too principled; you’ll need to get rid of him to control the rest. But you must do it carefully otherwise you’ll lose Clara, and a healer is a powerful asset. She is a follower at heart, so work to make her yours.” Joseph pauses briefly, his eyes thoughtful. “Now, the pebble slinger, Whistler, has some rough potential. Not terribly bright, morally flexible, fiercely loyal. In skilled hands he’d make an excellent henchman, until you can replace him with a sharper weapon of course. Remember that: they’re always replaceable.”
The skirt twisted in her clenched fist, the hem writhing against the stone floor and leaving claw-like patterns in the thin dust of the underground cavern. Brusquely she shoved away floating strands of hair to glare openly at the man, who resumed noisily eating noodles without noticing her gaze.
After a long moment she turned away and began ascending the stairs. Once she reached the top, she spoke softly over her shoulder, “You can keep your counsel. I pity the heart that could speak it.”
When the young witch was out of sight, Joseph slowly lowered the bowl, only a slight tremor in his hand as he wiped the sweat from his brow. Perhaps the warning would help in the years to come. At least now she knew the risks of what she could become.