The truck was old army issue, built back when even regular cars resembled tanks, and it could easily eat a Hummer for lunch and spit out the bolts. At least, it could have in its prime. But the years had not been kind, resulting in it landing at Stan’s Auto Emporium, a junkyard/car dealership in which it was often hard to tell the difference between the two types of merchandise.
“It’s as dependable as they come,” Stan said, patting its rusty hood. He was a tiny man, four foot something, with the something being mostly chutzpah. “This truck is rugged.”
I crossed my arms. “This truck passed rugged a long time ago. This truck couldn’t find rugged with a map. This truck is—what’s the phrase I’m looking for? A hunk of junk.”
“A hunk of junk you can afford, sweetheart.”
He had a point.
“Two hundred? I could practically get a limo for that!”
“But you don’t need a limo.”
“I don’t need a hole in my wallet, either.”
He crossed his arms and silently chewed tobacco at me.
“I just need it for the night,” I told him. “I can have it back in the morning.”
“Fine. That’ll be two hundred bucks.” Something hit the concrete below the cab with an ominous rattle. Stan didn’t bat an eye. “Okay, return her in good condition and I’ll take ten off the price.”
“Good condition? You mean something other than the way it is now?” I asked sourly, but forked over the cash. Normally, I’d have driven a harder bargain, but I’d promised to help a friend and I was running late. And nowhere else was going to have the kind of steel gauge construction I needed. This thing might be a hunk of junk, but it was solid.
Yet, fifteen minutes later, it was also sagging and groaning as my team filed in, to the point that I feared for the tires—all six of them. It wasn’t too hard to figure out why. I peered into the cavernous interior, and found it alarmingly full of troll.
“Here’s the thing,” I told the nearest four-hundred-pound slab of muscle. “We’re going to need room to transport the illegals, assuming we find any, not to mention the slavers. And I don’t think they’re gonna fit.”
Nothing. I might as well have been talking to the brick wall the guy closely resembled.
“I’m not saying that everybody needs to stay behind,” I offered, trying again. “Just, you know, two or three of you.”
I waited another minute, because troll reasoning faculties can be a little slower than some and I thought maybe he was thinking it over. But no. The small, pebble-like eyes just looked at me, flat and uninterested in the yammering of the tiny human. I sighed and went to find Olga.
The leader of the posse currently straining the hell out of my truck was still inside her headquarters, which consisted of a combo beauty salon and what looked like the back room at Soldier of Fortune. It would have been an odd marriage in the human world, even in Brooklyn, but there weren’t many humans shopping at Olga’s. And the local community of dark fey seemed to like buying their ammo and getting their nails done all in one place.
I found the lady herself pawing through a cardboard box of suspicious items in the storeroom. Like her squad of volunteers, she was of the troll persuasion, weighing in at something less than a quarter ton—but not a lot less. Not that she was fat; like most trolls, she was built of muscle and sinew and was hard as a rock, all eight-plus feet of her. I don’t know how she found clothes, but she usually managed to be more stylish than me.
That had never been truer than tonight.
For the evening’s sortie into New York’s magical underbelly, I had selected jeans, a black t-shirt, a black leather jacket and a pair of ass-kicking boots. It didn’t make me look tough—when you’re five-foot-two, dimpled and female, not a lot does—but it hid a lot of weaponry and didn’t attract attention.
Olga did not appear to be worried about attention.
Instead of well-worn denim, she was strutting her considerable stuff in pink satin clam diggers, a matching sequined butterfly top—cut low to show an impressive amount of cleavage—and glossy four-inch heels. The heels were nude patent leather, possibly so they didn’t clash with the toenails poking out the end, which were the same fire-engine red as her hair.
I regarded it enviously for a moment. It made the paltry blue streaks in my own short brown locks seem dull and lifeless by comparison. I needed a new color. Of course, for that, I also needed to get paid, which meant getting a move on.
“You’re coming, right?” I asked, as she flipped over the OPEN sign.
“Moment,” she said placidly.
“I just wondered because, you know,” I gestured at the acre of sequins.
Olga continued sorting through the box.
“Not that you don’t look good.”
Zilch. I was starting to get a complex.
“So, listen. We’ve got a problem with the truck.”
She finally looked up. “It no go?”
“No, it’s fine. It’s just, uh, sort of packed.”
“Everyone not fit?”
“No, they’re in there. But I don’t think we’re going to be squeezing in any more.”
“Slaves make their own way home, once we free them.” She held up a fistful of the type of charms her kind used to pass as more or less human.
“Okay, but that still leaves the slavers.”
That got me a long stare.
“Olga,” I said, getting a sinking feeling. “I have to bring them back for questioning. We’ll never stop the selling of your people if we don’t know who’s behind it.”
“That vampire behind it,” she said, stuffing the charms into a sleek pink clutch.
She was talking about a rat fink named Geminus. Until his recent, unlamented demise, he’d been a member of the Vampire Senate, the governing body for all North American vampires. But power, fame and the idolization of millions hadn’t been good enough. He’d wanted to be rich as Croesus, too, and found that running the slave trade from Faerie fit the bill nicely.
“He’s dead,” I pointed out. “And yet business goes on as usual.”
“Not for long.”
I sighed but didn’t bother to point out that a handful of trolls and a lone dhampir were not likely to bring down a network Geminus had spent years building. Because that wasn’t our job. All we were after was a new arrival from Faerie who had failed to arrive.
That sort of thing had always been a hazard for the dark fey who paid to be smuggled out of the almost constant warfare in Faerie. Sometimes the smugglers took the money and then failed to show up, or left the would-be immigrants stranded far from home and on the wrong side of the portal. Others did make it through, only to end up in the usual mess faced by any illegals—lousy jobs, worse pay and no one to complain to. Although that still beat what was behind door number three.
There are tons of old legends about the fey kidnapping humans. What nobody bothered to record is that we do it right back. A lot of the slavers are dark mages who promptly drain the magic—and therefore the life—out of anybody unlucky enough to fall into their hands. Others are more like subcontractors, finding specimens for sale into nefarious “professions” that usually ended the same way.
But lately, thanks to Geminus’ death and a simultaneous crack down on smuggling by the Senate, the number of active portals was dwindling. That would have been good news, except for the law of supply and demand, which ensured that the price for slaves was going nowhere but up. That had left the smugglers with the ironic problem of having to watch out for other crooks, who were trying to steal their illegal cargo—like the group who had attacked a band of would-be immigrants last night.
They’d been lucky enough to make off with an even dozen new slaves.
They’d been unlucky enough to have one of them be Olga’s nephew.
If she caught up with them, I strongly suspected that there’d be a few less smugglers to worry about. Which wouldn’t have concerned me except that my job these days was to make sure that that didn’t happen. Well, not before I had a chance to question them, anyway.
“You know,” I said idly, as Olga locked up. “A few deaths—even of scumbag slavers—won’t do much to stop the trade. But the info they might provide . . ."
Olga threw me a look, which was hard to see behind her flashy new Dolce and Gabbana shades. They would have seemed a little odd, because the sun was close to setting, but these shades weren’t about keeping light out so much as letting it in. They’d been modified to enhance all light in the area, because troll eyesight sucks even at the best of times.
And I guess Olga wanted to see the leader’s face before she bit it off.
“You stubborn little woman,” she told me.
“It has been remarked.”
She tilted her head. “You take him away, how I know he dead?”
“Because the Senate isn’t known for compassion?” She just looked at me. Olga didn’t have a lot of faith in the Vampire Senate. Olga knew that they only cared about the smugglers because of the weapons they also brought in, most of which went to their enemies. Olga knew nobody gave a shit about the dark fey, which was why they had to look out for themselves.
“And because I’ll take care of it,” I added.
“It’s what I do.”
She thought this over while I sorted through the pastry box she’d brought for the boys. Tonight was muffins, although I couldn’t tell what kind. “What are these?”
I sniffed one. Human food was still a new experience for the fey, who tended to combine things in odd ways. I took a bite.
“And what are these green things?”
That’s what I’d thought.
We reached the truck and Olga climbed in, making the struts groan and the tires drop another inch. I donated the muffins to the boys in back and turned to follow suit. And found a chest in the way.
It was a nice chest, wearing a blue knit pullover in some kind of thin material that outlined hard pecs and a washboard stomach. It was attached to an even nicer pair of denim-covered thighs and a butt that ought to be hanging in a museum somewhere. It even smelled good—a rich, sweet, decadent scent that always reminded me of butterscotch.
The face topping the whole mountain of awesome was pretty nice, too. Even crowned by a mass of auburn, Breck-girl hair pulled back from a manly jaw by an understated tortoiseshell clip. And even if it was currently regarding me sardonically.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
That got me a raised eyebrow. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
I guess so, since my nipples just got hard, I didn’t say, because his ego was big enough as it was.
“It’s just a little unexpected.”
“I gathered that.” Narrowed blue eyes took in the straining truck. “Am I interrupting something?”
“Just . . . going out with some friends.”
“Indeed. That is reassuring. For a moment, I thought you might be planning to do something that would contravene doctor’s orders.”
Yeah, I was busted.
“We’re . . . going to see the fights,” I said, hoping he somehow hadn’t noticed the army issue truck, the armed to the teeth posse, and the half ton of illegal weaponry I had hidden around my outfit.
An eyebrow raised.
“I enjoy a good fight,” Louis-Cesare said, in what had to be the understatement of the century. “I’ll come along. Consider it a date.”
“A date, huh?” I looked him over. “If I buy you a popcorn, do I get to have my way with you later?”
He took another step, and I suddenly found myself trapped between hard steel and harder vampire. “How big of a popcorn?”
“I don’t know. What am I getting in return?”
He bent over and whispered something in my ear.
I swallowed. “We’ll see if they have a bucket.”
* * *
They didn’t have a bucket.
They did have beer, overpriced and in tiny paper cups, sold by enterprising types out of a repurposed ice cream van that prowled up and down the ridiculously long line to get in. I wouldn’t have plucked down the cash for what was essentially highway robbery, but I had my evening ahead to think about. And I wanted to see what the so-cultured Louis-Cesare would do with a half frozen beer. Because the truck's freezers had not been repurposed along with the rest of it, leaving us with what amounted to beer popsicles.
Not that I was complaining.
Until I ran into something.
I’d been distracted wondering how the gargoyle-like things driving the truck were managing to reach the pedals, since they appeared to be maybe toddler height, when I suddenly stopped moving. The obstacle in my way was skin warm, although it felt more like stone. And looked like it, too, when I turned my head to see so many muscles that some had given up trying to find an appropriate spot and just bulged out haphazardly, wherever they could find room.
The living boulder regarded me for a second, and the squinty little eyes got squintier. "No," he rumbled.
The rock-like dome, which lacked any sort of hair except for a couple robust tufts coming out of the ears, nodded at a nearby sign.
NO WEPINS, it informed me, in dripping, acid green spray paint.
"They have lockers," Louis-Cesare murmured.
This was true. A stoner with a bad case of Muppet hair was sitting cross legged on the dirt beside the sign, in front of a row of lockers. They looked like they'd been ripped wholesale off an elementary school wall, complete with bits of happy ducky wallpaper still clinging to the edges. And then piled haphazardly against a sagging, chain link fence, without any effort to secure them to anything. Meanwhile, their only guardian's eyes were starting to cross from a joint the size of a cigar that he was munching on, Churchill-style.
"You have got to be kidding me," I said.
"Move," the boulder rumbled, when I just stood there.
"Then let me in."
"Then lose the hardware."
"You just let her in," I nodded at a tall, model-pretty chick with bright purple hair, carmine lipstick and a half ton of lethal accessories. She disappeared through a gate in the chain link and immediately flickered out of view, masked by whatever glamourie they were using to hide the night's less-than-legal festivities.
The spell wasn't perfect; every so often it let out a split second of raucous music, or a glimpse of smoky darkness lit by odd smears of light. But mostly it held. Meaning that the only thing I could see past the sagging fence was an overgrown lot strewn with grimy police tape, some pools of water from this afternoon's downpour, and the fire-gutted building that had brought us all here.
Fly by night, pop up events like this preferred disaster areas, because any damage could be written off as part of the previous catastrophe. But this one was a little more catastrophic-looking than usual. The sun was setting, making the old brick building appear to still be on fire, with the last rays boiling in broken, smoke clouded glass. Glass that looked a lot like jagged teeth, framing the solid black maws of burnt out windows, which could be hiding anything, anything at all.
"Imma need my weapons," I told Boulder Boy.
"Know her; don't know you," he said slowly, answering my previous question. Because lightning fast was not the processing speed we were dealing with here. But then, most people didn’t want to pay for a bouncer who could think. Most people wanted a bouncer who could follow orders, and I was getting the definite impression that, once an idea got lodged in that rock hard cranium, it didn’t get out again.
Well, not without some help.
"Hold my beer," I told Louis-Cesare.
But then backup arrived. At least, I guess that's what it was, because an arm the size of a small bus reached out of the glamourie and grabbed—not me, because I know how to move when I have to. But a guy standing behind me. Who had also come armed for bear, but not armed for whatever the hell had just grabbed him. And had now turned him upside down and was shaking him like a maraca on Cinco de Mayo.
For a moment, all conversation stopped as the line watched the shake down. A couple knives, five guns, a set of brass knuckles, and half a dozen extra clips fell out of the guy's coat and jeans and various useless holsters. Because they weren't meant to stand up to that kind of abuse.
Of course, neither was human anatomy, and he'd looked pretty human to me. But I guess not. Because he was still breathing when the arm dropped him a moment later.
On his head.
"No weapons," the bouncer told me.
It was finally decided that one of the trolls, a small mountain named Sten who was nonetheless looking at the arm with respect, would take my stuff back to the truck and babysit it. That left us a man down, but I was somehow less concerned about security, all of a sudden.
The stoner cranked off a bunch of tickets from a roll that looked the kind you got after stuffing quarters in a Skee-Ball machine, and Olga accepted them with a regal inclination of her head. She swept through the gate, with Louis-Cesare and I on her heels. And I guess the rest of the trolls brought up the rear, but I wasn't sure because—
I don’t know what I’d expected. I knew we were going to an illicit, no-holds-barred fight of the kind that would leave the UFC writhing in envy. I knew that said fights were not supposed to be known to the authorities, human or otherwise, and were therefore an open invitation to all kinds of rabble. I knew that we were walking into danger, serious danger, which was why I'd been so loaded down with weapons that I basically clinked when I walked.
I knew all this, yet I still wasn't prepared for what I saw once we stepped through the glamourie.
I still wasn't prepared for troll carnival.
And I wasn't prepared for it to hit all at once, to the point that my brain could only take everything in by breaking it down into the different senses.
Sound: a blast loud enough to blow my hair back, hitting like a tsunami that drags you under before spitting you out the other side on a wave studded with audible debris. Which beats and bangs you up, leaving you breathless and disoriented, because it's coming at you from all sides: wonky loudspeakers trying vainly to give updates that nobody could hear; old fashioned boom boxes and stereos blaring every kind of music simultaneously; hordes of gamblers screaming bets around bookmakers, who were standing on piles of smoke damaged furniture to get above the crowd; somebody roaring with a sound like whatever they'd used for the dinos in Jurassic Park—shoulda just got the fey, I thought blankly; and people, all kinds of people, threading through the crowd of vendors' tents and lean-tos surrounding the burnt out hulk like a swirl of colorful skirts. And fighting and laughing and singing and shouting in a couple dozen languages, including some that scratched the brain because they weren't in human decibels.
Smell: a five foot toddler lurching by on unsteady legs, waving an odorous treat that left scent trails in the air so thick they were almost visible; hawkers in the form of Ieles—basically large, bipedal cats—pushing their version of suspiciously mouse-like shish-kebob; families tailgating over open fires, with pots so bright with unknown spices that they twitched the nose and fooled the mind, turning the flames multicolored as several senses tangled up and tripped over one another.
Sight: The sheer variety of fey—like nothing I'd ever seen. A towering hulk of a giant, leaning against a groaning tree and scratching his nuts, waiting for the next partygoer with an attitude; a cascade of tiny ashrays floating by in bubbles of water because they couldn't touch land; humpbacked ogres peering suspiciously at the world from under thatches of unkempt hair; diminutive brownies with coal black eyes, travelling in packs and arguing over their bets; a beautiful blonde selkie in human form, but leaving watery footprints wherever she walked; a raucous tent filled with satyrs and mazikeen, flightless fey with iridescent wings often mistaken for angels except for their tendency to really get the party started; and a dozen others I couldn’t even put a name to.
I had started to think, after this summer, that I was something of an authority on the fey. My landlord was a dark fey princess, I had a basement full of troll in the form of several of Olga's relatives, my adopted son was a half duergar/half brownie who'd helped me battle a light fey princeling with skills I’d never even heard of until I was almost gutted by them. And yet I'd somehow come out intact on the other side.
And, I was quickly realizing, still didn’t know shit.
I was realizing something else, too.
"Wait a minute!" I screamed at Olga, who somehow heard me over the din. She turned politely. "What are all the fey doing here?"
That got me a forehead wrinkle. "For the fights."
"Yes, but . . . you told me it was fey being kidnapped and forced to battle to the death! Not that they'd be part of the crowd!"
Large shoulders shrugged. "Fey fight at home. Fey fight here. Fight not problem. Kidnapping problem."
"Okay, but you appreciate it's going to be a little hard to find your nephew in all this!" I waved at the crowd, maybe a couple thousand strong, maybe more, already packed into the lot. And we hadn’t even gotten to the main event yet.
"We not need find him," Olga explained patiently. "Find slaver. Then—" She made a fist.
And, yeah, okay, I was pretty sure he'd talk, too. But still.
"But still," I yelled, because the noise level really was astounding. "That doesn’t look like it's going to be any easier!"
It really didn't. Especially since the place wasn't just packed with fey. There were also droves of magical humans, who seemed a lot more in the loop than I was, since they were buying booze or haggling a buck off the price of a t-shirt instead of staring around in slack-jawed astonishment. And here and there were dark puddles of stillness that screamed vampires, who I guess had come for the fun since fey blood didn’t nourish them. There were even a few weres, looking like humans but still itchy, like a feather tickling up my spine.
Normally, finding the perp in my line of work is easy, since mostly I'm chasing things that go bump in the night amid crowds of humans. Find the sup and you usually find the bad guy, the needle in the proverbial haystack who showed up on my mental radar, all nice and shiny. Only here, half the haystack was made out of needles. And even that didn’t help me out much since, this time, they might be the good guys.
"Don’t worry," Olga said, clapping a ham-sized hand on my shoulder, and almost buckling my knees. "He albino."
That seemed to settle things as far as she was concerned, because she took off, plowing through a gleaming stream of Will 'o the Wisps with a "tchaa" and some flapping of massive hands. They went swirling off in annoyed clouds and me and my date went stumbling after her.
I didn’t point out that this albino, if he really was behind the theft, wasn't likely to be hanging around in full view. Or hanging around at all if he'd realized that he'd grabbed the nephew of the widow of one of faerie's most notorious weapons' runners. A widow who still had a lot of connections and a serious hate-on for losing more family members. Hell, he might not even be on the planet.
But I didn’t tell her that, and not just because of the noise.
But because of the implication.
I didn’t think we were going to find Olga's nephew, not in one piece, anyway. I'd thought that ever since she first asked me along, because a scared slaver was a dangerous slaver. And why risk keeping a witness to your stupidity when a knife through the eye would take care of the problem?
But Olga didn’t need to hear that right now. I didn’t know what troll life was like back in the old country, but here the community was tight knit, leaning on each other for support in a world they found as frightening and strange as we did theirs. Every new arrival was valued as a reminder of home and a hedge against adversity, and every death was mourned as a tragedy that affected them all.
So, no, I wasn't going to tell her that we weren't likely to find him. Because maybe we could find the son of a bitch who'd killed him. He should be far, far away by now, if he had any sense, but people often didn't.
Especially arrogant slavers used to calling the shots.
The thought made me smile. And then a glance at Louis-Cesare made me smile bigger, because the French aristocrat with the flashing eyes and dangerous temper and heart affixed quite firmly to his sleeve, still liked to believe that he was Mr. Cool Under Pressure. Nothing rattled him, no sirree, not a chance. Except for this, apparently, because he was staring around, as discombobulated as me.
I needed to keep up with Olga's bright red head, bouncing just ahead, so I had to content myself with catching glimpses here and there. Like of his wider-than-normal eyes, reflecting the firelight as he watched ponderous troll jugglers deftly spin torches into the air in amazing parabolas. Or his open mouthed astonishment at a group of Thussers—Norwegian fjord fey—going to town on some fiddles, wildly enough that the closest vendors had shut down their music in deference to the awesomeness. Or his brief smile at a massive troll serving as a "ride" for some diminutive troll children. Who were being flung three stories into the air and then caught expertly, while they screamed and giggled and demanded something I didn’t understand, but which was obviously "do it again!"
Or the flush on his cheekbones when a half-naked nymph tried to pull him into a dark tent, where sketchy things were happening in corners.
"Not a chance," I told her, and draped an arm around his waist.
She pouted prettily. And while she didn’t appear to know English, or any other spoken language, the body was . . . expressive. It somehow conveyed the impression that a threesome was not out of the question if I would stop being so selfish and learn to share.
"Maybe later," I said, watching Louis-Cesare, who was manfully biting the inside of a cheek to keep from breaking the macho sangfroid he didn’t have anyway.
I pulled him off.
"For a moment there, you looked interested," he murmured into my ear.
Olga had paused to round up a couple of the boys, who had been enticed away by some wasps' nests on a stick—three for a dollar!—so we had a moment.
Strong arms wrapped around my midsection. “Are you trying to tell me you’re kinky, Dorina?”
I shot him a look over my shoulder. “You’re a vampire dating one of the few things on earth capable of killing you, and I’m kinky?”
"Good point." Warm lips found my neck.
They were nice lips. And the body pressed against mine was even nicer. Especially when a cloud of smoke from a nearby vendor's grill billowed past, and the damned vamp took the opportunity to slide his hands under my jacket.
That was better than nice, because Louis-Cesare could have taught the nymph a thing or two. Or, at least, it should have been. Except for the fact that we were already a threesome, and that was without the girl.
Cut it out, I told myself, as those warm hands went a-roving in all the right places. Can’t you just enjoy something for once? Don’t think about her.
But it was kind of hard not to when the third in our little ménage wasn't someone I could just walk away from. Because she was me—the other me, the monster to my Frankenstein, the Hyde to my Jekyll. The alter ego that, despite the fact that we shared cranium space, I didn’t feel like I knew at all.
It was a long story, but essentially boiled down to a stark truth about dhampirs: we're all freaking nuts. It's why, despite having technically immortal creatures for sperm donors, we rarely end up with even a normal human lifespan. I suppose it's nature's way of compensating for the fact that we're not supposed to exist in the first place, since dead sperm don’t swim.
But half dead ones do, and rare vampires like my sire, who was cursed rather than bitten, have a couple days leeway while the spell takes effect. A couple days in which they aren’t one thing or the other. And neither are any children they make in the meantime. Children who end up with greater strength, heightened senses, Olympic athlete speed—and two natures that try their best to kill each other.
In my case, my vampire half had made a good start on that, growing faster and maturing quicker than my mostly human side, and threatening to tear me apart in the process. So Mircea, the sperm donor in question, who was talented at manipulating the mind even for a bloodsucker, put a wall between us—a mental wall. One which allowed my two natures to develop separately, never occupying consciousness at the same time. It saved our lives, and gave us a chance to do what most dhampirs rarely manage and actually grow up. But it also created some problems.
Like the fact that Dorina was pretty damned savage, as far as I could tell, adhering much more to the vampire side than I ever had. Like the fact that Mircea's wall had eventually crumbled, cracking recently thanks to my ingesting a fey substance that had been labeled a beverage, but acted more like a mind altering drug. And like the fact that now, for the first time in five hundred years, Dorina and I were leaking through the wall, her into me or me into her, jury was still out but the point was there was contact. Small, intermittent stuff so far, like dreams or maybe memories, of places I’d never been and people I'd never known.
But how long would that last?
It was unsettling enough, the idea that, all those times I’d passed out in my life I’d actually just been living someone else's. Someone who had done things I couldn’t remember, to people I didn’t know, who may or may not have deserved them, because how the hell would I know? But what was really causing me nightmares was worry about what was to come. Mircea had separated us because Dorina was stronger—was she still? And if she was, and if our brains were now blurring back together, what did that mean for me?
What did it mean if she decided that maybe I’d been in charge long enough, and it was her time in the driver's seat?
"Dory?" I suddenly noticed that Louis-Cesare's hands had stopped. Going vampire-still like the rest of him as he scanned the crowd for dangers he wouldn’t find, because they were all locked up in my crazy head. "Is something wrong?"
Nothing I want to try and explain, I thought. Especially not tonight. If I didn’t have much time left, I was going to enjoy the hell out of what I did.
I grabbed his hand. "No. Come on."
"To where? Olga has stopped."
"Yeah, to round up the boys, so there's time."
"For what?" His eyes flickered to the tent again, as if calculating exactly how long we had.
I smacked his arm. "To win a prize," I said, and dragged him off toward a snarl of booths ahead.
This wasn't the most organized place I’d ever seen, maybe because of the limited space they had to work with. Or maybe because troll eyesight preferred the pretty lights all smushed up together. But we managed to forge a path through the tangle nonetheless, to a small booth almost buried in teddy bears.
Huge, eye-searingly pink ones.
Now, I hate pink and could give a crap about stuffed animals, but I had a halfbreed at home that loved them. Specifically, he loved to chew the shit out of them because he was teething. And, with the number of teeth in that mouth and all of them coming in at once, it was a problem. I’d tried those amber necklace things that are all the rage, but the razor sharp canines he was developing kept slicing though the string and then he ate the beads. Which wouldn’t have been so bad except he crunched them up like candy, crunch, crunch, crunch, all day long, and the sound had been driving everybody crazy.
So we'd switched to softer stuff, but we were fast running out of pillows, and most of the stuffed animals I’d bought as a substitute hadn’t lasted ten minutes. Of course, they'd been normal sized and pretty flimsy, while these . . . . I gazed up at them in satisfaction. That's what I’d thought. These had been made for trolls.
They looked vaguely like Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear if he'd been made by somebody more worried about sturdiness than hugability. The main material seemed to be some sort of rawhide, with black embroidered eyes that couldn’t be crunched off and seams that appeared to have been quadruple stitched. Because troll babies are hardcore.
And there were tons of them, the lack of space having forced the vendor to pile them everywhere, including on top of his stall, where they remained, a trembling mountain of pink sturdiness just waiting to be savaged by my little heathen baby.
"What . . . ." Louis-Cesare stood there, staring upwards, seemingly at a loss for words. Perhaps at the fact that I’d dragged him away from the nymphs for this. Or perhaps because the bears looked like they might collapse on us at any minute.
"I want one of those." I pointed.
Louis-Cesare blinked a few times, but took out his wallet.
"No, you can’t buy it," I said. "You have to win it."
"Win it?" he looked slightly confused.
The carny decided to help me out. "That's right, good sir, step right up, we have a winner here, I can tell, we have a big winner!"
An aristocratic eyebrow went up at the man's cant, because I swear it looked like Louis-Cesare had never been to a carnival before. Which was weird, because I knew France had them, although maybe not this kind. Definitely not this kind, I thought, as the man's assistants popped up from underneath the counter.
And, okay, this was new.
Peering at us over the countertop were a line of wizened little . . . somethings. Grayish green and brown and vaguely hoary, had they been in a glade somewhere, I might have walked right past them and thought they were moss-covered stones. But here, under the bright lights of the carny's booth, they were obviously . . . somethings.
"Spriggans, ride with trolls," the carny said, seeing my surprise. He leaned in. "Don’t give them any money."
"They’ll go off and bury it somewhere, and then we won’t have a game, will we?"
"Do we have a game?" Louis-Cesare said, because he did not appear to be interested in things that ride with trolls. He appeared to be interested in the bears, eyeing them up as if reevaluating his whole impression of me. "You truly wish one of these?" he asked, eyes sliding to mine as if still unsure.
"Or two. Two is good."
"And easy it is, sir, easy it is. Just take these," the carny slid three spiky-looking balls across the counter. "Fix 'em to the back wall there, just anywhere you please. Black circles get you a fine keychain, hand carved by some of the locals—truly stunning work. The purple areas get you a premium box of candy for the lady here," he smirked at me. "And the green circles, well, those'll get you one of these fine, handcrafted—"
"And the pink. Those are for the bears, yes?" Louis-Cesare asked.
"Uh, yes. Yes, indeed," the carny broke off his spiel to nod at three tiny, bright pink circles amid the busy backdrop, which won the top prize. Still, it didn’t look too hard to me. Both the balls and the backdrop were covered in a bunch of Velcro-looking stuff, and ought to stick together nicely—if you weren't a troll with lousy eyesight. I glanced at Olga, who had started ambling this way, and wondered how many we could win before—
Something went off like a gunshot, loud enough to make me jump. And then to blink and do a double take, because the nearest little whatever was little no longer. In a split second, it had blown up to the circumference of an oversized beach ball, blocking a good quarter of the wall. And in the middle of the stretched, mottled, knobby-looking skin, resided a single off-white ball.
Okay, maybe this wasn't going to be as easy as I’d thought.
"Olga's coming," I told Louis-Cesare, who had acquired a small frown in between his eyebrows.
"This will not take a moment," he told me, and threw the remaining balls.
"We can come back later," I offered, as Olga came up behind.
"What you do?"
"Winning a bear."
"Not here," she said, chewing on something with tiny trailing feet and a tail. "He cheats."
"I do no such thing!" The carny looked offended. "This is a game of skill, plain and simple."
"Not with them," Olga said placidly, as the little things watched her with shiny black eyes.
"He's a vampire," the carny said, passing over more balls. "With reflexes far faster than they're used to. It’s more than fair—"
POP, POP, POP!
"—why, it’s the easiest game anywhere!"
"You know, honestly," I said, starting to wish I hadn’t brought it up. Because I'd been watching those little beggars, and they moved like lightning. And whenever they weren't sure they'd be fast enough, they blew up like balloons, instantly covering so much space that there was literally no way to win. "It's fine. Really."
But Louis-Cesare was looking at me again, and he had that expression in his eyes. The one that said we weren't going anywhere. "Three more," he told the man.
"We could be here all night, and we have a match to—"
And then a bunch of things happened at once. The man handed over three more fool's bets; a bunch of coins suddenly flashed in the air, a glittering wave not of silver but of gold, pure and shiny and gleaming under the lights; and bunch of crusty beach balls deflated and scrambled like mad for the surprise treasure.
And three little Velcro balls landed in three little circles, each one smack dab in the middle.
I stared at them.
And then at the ground, where the crazed things were scrapping and clawing and scuffling in the dirt.
And then back up at Louis-Cesare, who was looking smug. "You just spent like . . ." I didn’t even know. "A couple thousand dollars on a bear."
"Three bears," he said complaisantly, and pulled them down from the row above our heads.
"That's—you—wait—" the carny said. And then he said something else, but I couldn’t hear him. Because an eardrum rupturing horn had just gone off, and I thought it possible I’d never hear again.
It time, Olga mouthed, as the whole field suddenly jumped up and started for the house.