"I have every call. Murder calls the shade to the sorcerer."
"Is that poetry? I've never heard that one and I've never done murder, so you can be on your way."
"You are a witch."
"Possibly. My mother was. I never could stick the course to find out. The first time Mom explained why blind puppies weren't hard to find, I just went elsewhere."
". . . Blind puppies?"
"Yes. They're eyes don't open for a bit. All newborn puppies are blind."
"I won't ask what a witch would do with a blind puppy."
"Boil it. And don't blame witches. At least witches don't blame witches. It's the nocebo effect. If there's not something really nasty in the potion and if the potion doesn't taste like hell, people don't believe that it will work. Nasty minds people have."
"So the potions don't work, they only use people's belief in them."
"If you've got the dosage right, yes. Most drugs are powerful. Take the puppy broth one. It's supposed to induce, or at least quicken, labor. . . you know, birth pangs?"
"I've never heard it called labor. That's work. Work may be pain, but pain isn't work."
"Well giving birth is just work if you do it right and don't listen to a pack of celibate priests or wrinkling grandmothers. Anyway, if you get the dose on that just a little too high, it causes a good deal of pain and some extra bleeding. Which is not good. So we aim for just a slightly too little drug and let the nocebo effect take it the rest of the way."
"So the stronger the drug, the more disgusting the added ingredients?"
"Sometimes. Some recipes are kind of neutral and just diluted out. That's for drugs with a strong tell."
"A tell. Like in poker?"
"Exactly. Although the idea that you can spot people's tells in poker is vastly overrated. Say a drug makes folk sweat when it's working. You make the potion dilute and say to take two sips and sing a verse of the hedgehog song - or rather chant some incomprehensible healing spell that you write down for them - then take two more sips and so on, until you start to sweat."
"Can't trade recipes if you can't write."
". . . You're sure you didn't murder me?"
"Pretty sure. I tend to remember important things. I have to write down little things in my diary or I forget them, but murder would stick in the memory."
"You couldn't have cast a general spell without knowing it was directed against me. Say, because I kicked you cat or something?"
"Which cat did you kick?"
"I was speaking hypothetically, but, well, a big orange tabby."
"Good for you. He's a nasty pest. Digs in my plants."
"Not your cat?"
"Nope. Mine are both dark grey tabbies. A couple of happy, eunuch pillow cats. The dark one gets out of my rooms from time to time, if I'm not quick with the door, but mostly they're happy to sun on the balcony. "
"The dark one. You mean that black one, there?"
"You can see the stripes if the sun hits him right."
"You're sure you didn't bespell me by accident.?"
"Could you check the diary? Just in case?"
"Sorry. When I checked the last entry this morning, it said not to read back further until I had met three new people."
"That sounds suspiciously witchlike to me."
"Hate to disappoint you, but I'm not a witch, just an eccentric old woman in a boarding house who talks to her cats. Trust me. If my mother couldn't get magic out of me, it can't be gotten. She was a determined woman. I don't remember half of my childhood. At least not half of the real things. I could give you a pretty accurate chronology of my daydreams, though. Protective things, daydreams. Great insulation against magic."
"You don't look old any more than that cat looks tabby. I'd like to believe you, but your story tends to stray from strict veracitude in odd places."
"Veracitude isn’t a word. And the cat is not black to anyone familiar with magic. If you were given a list of potion ingredients by a witch and you brought poor Sydney in, she'd say 'sorry, I said a BLACK cat. . .see this pale underfur. . . see the striping in his tail and on his forehead?'. That's the way I've learned to judge a black cat."
"So people bring the ingredients in?"
"Most of them. Pretty much all of the unimportant ones. It gets people involved with their own cure, you see. Or with their own obsession. Not everyone comes for a cure and not everyone gets what they want. Like I said, people can be nasty. I prefer talking to cats."
"And the claim that you are old?"
"I have more than ten grey hairs. See? I've just got that mousy dull hair that doesn't show grey much. I'll be half gone grey before anyone notices. And I'm done with the world. That's the main thing. I'm not going to go out changing things or trying to get attention. I have my meals sent up most days. Don't even go down to the dining room. You can stay if you like. I'm not telling you to go. We can haunt these rooms together. The cats are good company."
"I can't stand cats. Dogs are all right, if properly trained. But cats are too aloof."
"That just means one's never befriended you. Stay or go, makes no difference to me."