Wendy smelled magic.
She froze, clutching her grocery bags to her chest, and sniffed the air again. No mistake. Beneath the sour odor of garbage from an alley, beneath the salty fish-smell of the nearby river, was the sharp, burnt scent of magic. Powerful magic.
Prickling energy washed over her, and the hairs on the nape of her neck stood at attention. She dropped her grocery bags. They hit the street, and three green apples rolled out. She ignored them and whirled around, heart pounding.
Brick apartment buildings loomed on either side of the narrow cobblestone street. The kerosene streetlamps cast puddles of yellow light, but their glow couldn't penetrate the inky shadows all around. The pale light of a half-moon gleamed through the clouds. Her pulse filled her throat. Someone--or something--was out there, hiding in the darkness, watching her.
She suddenly wished she'd taken a coach. Or chosen a better hour to go shopping. But then, manning her shop all day, she rarely had a chance to get out before dark.
"Who's there?" she shouted.
She clenched her hands. Magic crawled over her skin like electric ants, making her itch. She fought the urge to shake herself. Her eyes darted back and forth, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary.
"Just your imagination," she murmured. But she didn't really believe that. She recognized the feeling all too well. Someone nearby was using the Gift to probe her, searching for weaknesses, chinks in her mental armor.
She thought about running, but that wouldn't do much good. You couldn't outrun magic. Besides, if it came down to a choice between fight and flight, she would choose the former.
Wendy lifted her right hand, fingers spread. Her Gift welled up, hot and cool at the same time. It flowed out from her heart and along her arm, into her hand. Her palm tingled and pulsed with soft, white light.
At best, she could produce a harmless flash or a puny spurt of flame, but it might be enough to dazzle an assailant and give her a chance to run. She took a deep breath. "Okay," she called, raising her voice. It didn't tremble, thankfully. "I know you're there. Why don't you just come out? Or better yet, get lost and let me go home. I'm not in the mood for games."
She heard a chuckle from the shadows. "That's too bad," said a deep, male voice. "Because I want to play."
She spun around. Too late, she felt a tingle at the base of her skull. A thin, cold line of power snapped through her head. She couldn't move. She opened her mouth to scream. Pressure constricted her throat, and her vocal cords stiffened, trapping the cry before it could escape.
She started to fall. Gloved hands grabbed her before she hit the street.
The man dragged her into a nearby alley, shoved her against a brick wall and pinned her. A silver wolf mask covered his face, its teeth bared in a snarl. They gleamed in the faint moonlight. She stared, caught between bewilderment and terror. "Evening, my dear," he whispered. His breathing rasped behind the mask. "Don't worry. I won't hurt you...much. I'm just the errand boy." He played with a lock of her hair, twisting it around two fingers. "I have a message from Ms. Eva Drizell."
Wendy's blood turned to ice-water. She would have preferred a mugger to one of Drizell's men.
"She's tired of waiting," said the man. "She wants to know when she'll have her money."
The invisible wire around Wendy's neck loosened, freeing her vocal cords. She swallowed. Her pulse hammered in her throat. "Soon, she'll have it soon. I just need a little more time."
"That's not the answer she wants. Though I must admit, it's the answer I wanted." He snickered. Deep within the holes of his mask, his eyes glinted, like coins at the bottom of a well. "Makes it more fun for me."
She gritted her teeth. If she could just move...
"Don't bother. I'm inside your head." He tapped his temple with one gloved finger. "I can hear your thoughts. They're racing around, buzzing like mad bees behind those pretty brown eyes. If you decide to try anything, I'll know. There's nothing you can do. Just relax and enjoy the ride." The man reached down, under his coat. His hand emerged holding a thin, curved knife.
Wendy stared at the blade, breathing fast.
"She said to take a bit of skin if you couldn't pay. And for each day that passes after this, another bit. I'll start with the left ear," he said, and lowered the knife.
Pain flared, sharp and hot, through her earlobe. She opened her mouth to scream, but the invisible hand of magic squeezed her throat, cutting off air and voice.
"Shhh." He petted her hair. "Just a little bit, see?" He held a bloody scrap in front of her eyes. "Another bit tomorrow, unless you pay up." He pushed the scrap of flesh into a tiny envelope and tucked the envelope into his pocket. Her skin crawled as he trailed a finger down her cheek. "Such a pretty face." He leaned closer. "It would be a shame to spoil those lovely features."
Come on, come on! Her breathing quickened as she strained against the spell. Her uncooperative body wouldn't move.
The man lifted his mask, just enough to expose his mouth. He ran his tongue slowly along her neck, leaving a warm, liquid trail, like a slug. One hand slid beneath the hem of her tunic. Oh God, no!
Fear and revulsion spiked through her. Don't panic. He was distracted now. If she could calm down, she might have a chance. Mustering her willpower, she slowed her breathing and sought the center of calm within. Then, with a burst of effort, she shoved him out of her head and rammed her knee into his groin.
The man staggered backwards with a loud "oof!" He doubled over, cradling his crotch. She turned to run, but the man grabbed her and slammed her against the wall again. He pinned her with his body, holding her wrists, and laughed breathlessly. "The kitten has claws!"
"Get your hands off me." Her voice shook.
"As you wish." He stepped back. "I have what I came for, anyway." He pulled the bloodstained envelope from his pocket, stroked it with one finger and tucked it away again. "A little piece of you."
"You're a sick son of a bitch, you know that?"
"Yes, I've been told that once or twice." He gave her a small, mocking bow. "I'll be seeing you again." He levitated straight up and disappeared into the darkness.
Wendy slid down the wall, trembling, heart socking against her ribs like a fist. "Bastard." She wiped the gooey saliva off her neck with one sleeve. Her ear burned and throbbed. She touched it, and her fingers came away wet with blood. More blood dripped down her neck, hot and thick.
She wondered what he planned to do with the scrap of flesh from her earlobe. Maybe she didn't want to know.
She grabbed a wad of tissues from her pocket, pressed it against her bleeding ear, and stood. Head buzzing, stomach queasy, she crept out of the alley on jelly legs. She looked down at her bags of scattered groceries, then knelt and began picking them up.
How was she going to get out of this mess?
She'd been asking herself the same question for months. So far, an answer hadn't presented itself.
Clutching the bags, she turned onto Phoenix Street and walked past rows of dark, empty shops, toward Wendy's Magic Emporium, the store that doubled as her home.
Her whole being ached. More than scared, she just felt tired--tired of dealing with things beyond her control, tired of watching her back, tired of threats and ultimatums. She wanted to take a hot bath and collapse into bed. Somehow, she doubted she'd be getting much sleep that night.
Wendy rubbed her temples. A headache brewed behind her eyes. "Sorry, but I can't sell you a love potion."
"Why not?" The young man's lips protruded in a pout. She half-expected him to stomp his foot like a three-year-old.
She sighed and stared at him from across the counter. He looked about twenty-two, pasty and heavyset, his broad face sprinkled with pimples and crowned with thin blond hair. "Look, I'm not going to argue. There's nothing to argue about."
"Just tell me why."
Hot, red flickers of pain danced behind her eyes. "Love potions are illegal in Garna. Just possessing one can get you about six months in prison, never mind selling it."
"I thought you'd sell anything for the right price."
She frowned. "Who told you that?"
"Some friends. This guy Bill, he had a bottle of Brain-Boost Elixir. Said you sold it to him."
A flush rose into her cheeks. Damn. She had to be more careful, or she'd have the nice men from the Bureau of Magical Artifacts and Potion Control knocking on her door, and there were one or two things in her shop she didn't want them to find. Like that imported dragon-horn powder. "Well, he told you wrong," she said. "Even if love potions were legal, I wouldn't stock them. That stuff is rape in a bottle."
He slouched and dug his hands in his pockets, looking up at her from beneath the caveman-like shelf of his brow. "I've known guys who used that stuff. They must've gotten it somewhere, so where'd they buy it?"
"I have no idea," she said. "Listen, if you like, I can sell you an attractiveness potion. Not really the same thing, but it might get you what you want. And it's legal."
He squinted. "What's the difference?"
"Any magic used to influence other people's thoughts or perceptions is forbidden under the Free Will Act. An attractiveness potion temporarily changes your physical appearance, but it doesn't affect the other person, so it's still allowed."
"Wait, temporarily? When will it wear off?"
"A few weeks," she said. "Of course, I can't guarantee she'll say yes if you ask her out, but it'll improve your chances. Hang on..." She turned, scanned her rack of potions, then plucked a pink glass bottle from the shelf. She undid the stopper and poured a bit into a shot-glass. "I'll let you test it. This dose will only give you about an hour. The full bottle will give you twenty days. By then, I'm sure, you'll have won her over with your charming personality."
He blinked and scrunched up his forehead. He didn't seem to realize she was being sarcastic. Just as well. "So then what? I take another?"
"You can, but I wouldn't take more than three or four bottles in a row if I were you. Your flesh might start to rot. Here, try it." She held the shot glass under his nose.
He slurped it down and grimaced. "Tastes like shit." He coughed. "Ugh. It's burning my throat."
"Yeah, strong potions will do that."
He coughed again, then wiped one hand across his mouth. His eyes watered. "When's it start to work?"
"Just give it a minute."
He blinked, then raised his hands and rubbed his face with his short, stubby fingers. "My skin's tingling." As she watched, his acne melted away, his puffy cheeks sucked in, his cheekbones pushed upward, and his blob-like nose narrowed. His straw-like hair thickened and brightened. His stomach sucked in, and his chest thrust out.
"Here." She shoved a mirror at him.
He peered at his reflection, and his now sky-blue eyes widened. "Hey, wow. Not bad. How much for that bottle?"
"Three hundred. Cash."
His jaw dropped. "That's nuts! Who'd pay that much for a measly bottle of potion?"
"The ingredients aren't easy to come by."
He grumbled, dug in his pocket, and pulled out a fistful of shakas. Somebody really wants to get laid, she thought.
She counted the coins into her register drawer, wrote up a receipt and handed a copy to him. "You want me to wrap this up?"
"Just give it to me." He snatched the bottle from her hand and stomped out of the shop. The door slammed, and the bell above it jingled.
What a toad. No wonder he'd wanted a love potion. Girls probably ran screaming from him, and not because of his looks. "And my mother asks me why I'm not dating anyone," she muttered. Men and their endless quest for pussy. Virility potions, confidence potions, attraction charms. All they ever wanted was help getting some hapless girl into the sack.
She opened her register and counted through the stacks of coins inside. "449, 450, 451," she murmured. 451 shakas, plus a stack of credit slips. Fat lot of good those did her. She made a mental note to hang up that NO CREDIT sign today. The customers would moan and groan, but she could no longer afford to run her business on the promise of being paid on some future date.
She dumped the coins into a pouch, then walked to the back of the shop and tucked the pouch into her safe alongside the money from earlier that week. Her funds added up to just over a thousand shakas. Not nearly enough to pay back her mountain of debt. She'd just have to hope it would be enough to keep Drizell happy a little longer. Or at least keep her henchman from cutting anything else off.
Wendy locked the safe-box and shoved it into the pantry.
She needed some tea. Head pounding, she filled a silver kettle and set it on the stove. She turned on the gas, opened a cabinet and hunted through her teabag stash, wondering if she had any of that peppermint blend left. Her mother had given her a box last Yule. Peppermint Comfort it was called, or something like that, and God knew she needed some comfort right now.
Her ear throbbed dully. She'd closed the wound with some Heal-Quick potion last night, but her earlobe still looked a little funny with a quarter-inch missing from the bottom. She supposed she was lucky. He could have taken a lot more.
She found the wooden box in the back, opened it and dumped a scoop of green tea-leaves into the pot.
The bell over the door jingled.
She kicked a chair and stubbed her toe. "Damn it!" She bit her lower lip as her toe throbbed.
She was in no shape to deal with customers today. Like she had a choice.
She hurried to the front of the shop and stretched her lips into a toothy grimace, the closest thing to a smile she could manage. "Hello," she said, "Welcome to Wendy's Magic Emporium. Can I help..." She fell silent as the man stepped inside.
A silver wolf mask greeted her horrified gaze. The man cocked his head, lifted one hand, and wiggled his fingers in a sly little wave. "Good afternoon."
She gulped. Her heart hammered her ribs. "What the hell are you doing here? Get out."
"My employer wants to speak with you. I'm to escort you there."
"I'm busy. The shop doesn't close for another three hours."
"I really don't think you want to keep her waiting. It would be very unwise to anger her." He snickered. "People who anger my employer tend to wind up dead."
She couldn't argue with that. She clenched her teeth, flipped the sign in the window from OPEN to CLOSED and followed him outside. A black coach waited on the street. The man opened the door and bowed. "After you, my lady."
"And here I thought chivalry was dead," she said. "You've got nice manners for a sadistic lunatic. But if it's all the same, I'd rather not share a coach with you. I'll take my own."
"Drizell insisted I bring you directly to her. I promise you will not be harmed...not by me, anyway. I was ordered not to lay a hand on you."
"Nice to know." Wendy hesitated. She still didn't want to get into the coach, but really, what choice did she have? She stepped inside and sat.
The masked man sat next to her and shut the door. The driver cracked his whip, and the horses broke into a trot. She sat, hands fisted in her lap, mouth dry. She watched from the corner of her eye as her "escort" leaned back in his seat, tapped his gloved fingers against one thigh and whistled a bright little tune. She felt like a mouse trapped in a cage with a snake. Her heartbeat filled her throat.
The coach took them to a street lined with huge, stately houses. A manicured lawn surrounded each one. At the street's end loomed a castle-sized mansion of white stone, with columns, arches and red-shingled roofs. The yard boasted a white marble fountain the size of an ordinary person's house, three-tiered and carved to resemble a flock of swans frozen in mid-flight. Water bubbled out of their open beaks. Kerosene lamps stood on poles around it, lighting it from all sides. The fountain couldn't have been more tacky and ostentatious if the maker had pasted fist-sized emeralds all over it, but then, tact and restraint were not Drizell's strong suits.
The coach dropped them off in front of the mansion. The masked man opened the door, and they got out. As the coach drove away, Wendy stood, staring at the huge house. She dried her sweat-damp palms on her trousers, took a deep breath, and tried to ignore the trembling in her knees.
"Right this way." He led her down a cobblestone pathway lined with trees and flowerbeds. He walked with a bounce in his step, hands in his trouser-pockets. She crept along behind him as they followed the path to a set of marble steps leading to the front door.
The man pressed the doorbell with one gloved finger, and Wendy heard a soft chime from within the house. A moment passed. Then the doors opened to reveal a pale, cadaverous man in a butler's uniform. He looked down his long nose at them, as if they were a pair of squashed beetles. "Yes?"
"Tell Ms. Drizell that I've brought the girl."
"One moment." He closed the doors.
The girl? That was downright insulting. If Wendy hadn't been so paralyzed with fear, she would have given the creep a piece of her mind.
A few minutes passed. The doors opened again to reveal the butler, still wearing the same disdainful expression. He bowed stiffly and swept an arm out. "Right this way, please."
They followed him into the mansion, down a spacious, well-lit hall with black marble walls. Gaudy chandeliers, dripping with crystals, hung from the ceiling. The hall ended in a marble staircase with a gold banister. The butler led them up the stairs and down another hall, to a mahogany door. He knocked. "Ms. Drizell, your guest has arrived."
"Come in," said a rich, smooth female voice.
The butler opened the door.
The masked man turned to face Wendy. "Here's where we part ways. Drizell doesn't need me present for this little discussion."
She would have been relieved, if she didn't know that a much more dangerous lunatic lay just beyond the door.
She crept forward into a spacious study. The butler shut the door behind her.
Sunlight spilled in through a picture window, illuminating the oyster-white walls and black, marble-tiled floor. The back wall bristled with swords. Steel and silver, curved and straight, short and long, they gleamed in the soft light like rows of shiny teeth. Their hilts glittered with rubies and emeralds. Ornamental or not, she didn't doubt the mounted swords were all sharp-edged and lethal...like their owner.
A tall, thin woman sat at a desk, a house of cards in front of her. She held one card in her long, manicured fingers.
Eva Drizell might have been anywhere from thirty to fifty. She had a skeletal look, her skin pulled tight and smooth over long bones, her eyes sunk deep in their sockets. It was the look people got when they'd used a few too many age-cheating spells. Tonight she wore a long, slinky white dress, scooped low to show a generous helping of cleavage, and her ice-blonde hair had been pulled into a tight braid. Chains of tiny sapphires sparkled around her neck and wrists.
She looked up. "Ms. Martin." She set the card down and rose to her feet in one smooth, fluid movement. "Just the person I wanted to see." She approached, her knife-sharp heels clicking on the floor. Her perfume hit Wendy in the face--a thick, cloying smell, like rotting flowers and honey.
Wendy's instincts screamed to turn and flee. She felt like a mouse pinned by the stare of an elegant, crafty cat. Somehow, she stood her ground.
Drizell leaned close, until Wendy thought she'd gag on the reek of perfume. Smooth, pale fingers touched Wendy's forearm, and she felt the press of long nails against her skin. "Do you have my money?"
Wendy stared into those cool, pale green eyes. Power shimmered around Drizell like an aura. As if being the richest woman in Garna wasn't enough, her Gift was formidably strong. If she chose, she could fry Wendy to ash where she stood. Knowing that didn't help Wendy's confidence, but somehow she found her voice and did what she usually did when overwhelmed with fear: started blurting out smart-ass remarks. "Your henchman is a real charmer."
"Oh, you mean the Jackal?" She smiled.
"That's what he calls himself? Well, I guess that explains the Halloween mask. Though it looked more like a wolf to me. Where'd you dig that creep up?"
Drizell shrugged. "Some prison in Pocopo. He's no more than a dime-store sociopath with a few artistic affectations. There are hundreds like him, but he serves his purpose."
"Seemed like he was really looking forward to cutting more pieces off me. What does he do with the bits he slices off? Eat them? Make a necklace out of them? Keep them in a scrapbook?"
She blinked. "I assure you, I have no idea."
"Well, keep the Jackal on a leash from now on. If you have a problem with me, talk to me yourself. Don't send one of your dogs."
Drizell's smile slipped away. "I'd advise you to guard that tongue, my dear, or you may lose it. I take it you don't have the money?"
Wendy swallowed, mouth dry. "I can give you a thousand."
She pursed her full, blood-red lips. "I don't want pocket change. I want the full amount."
"I'll have the rest soon. Really soon."
"I do hope so," said Drizell. She pinned Wendy with her cool stare. "You do know you're looking at ten months' worth of interest? At twelve percent, it adds up quickly." Her fingers dug into Wendy's biceps. "You've accumulated twenty-two thousand in debt."
Wendy flinched. "I know."
"And how are you going to pay off all that?" She dug her fingers in a little deeper.
Wendy's heart socked against the wall of her chest. "Business has been good lately. Lots of money coming in," she lied. "Give me one more month. I'll have it by then, for sure."
Drizell let out a small, delicate sigh. "Where have I heard that before? I've been very patient, Ms. Martin, but my patience has limits. Do you want to know what happened to the last man who gave me too many excuses?"
"That's not necessary," said Wendy, though she had a feeling she was going to hear it anyway. She was right.
"They found the poor fellow hanging upside down from a tree. His eyeballs had been removed, his arms broken, and his back was a bloody mess. Most of the skin had been flayed away. A miracle he survived, really. Of course, he couldn't talk about what had happened to him. Apparently, someone also removed his tongue." She clucked softly and shook her head. "A tragic incident."
Wendy's breathing quickened.
"Consider this my last warning," said Drizell. She leaned forward until the tip of her nose almost touched Wendy's. "I'll give you exactly thirty days. One month, and then I'll hunt you down, wherever you are, and squeeze the money out of you with my bare hands. Or perhaps..." She smiled. "You have family, don't you? A mother and a sister, I believe."
Wendy's blood turned to ice water. "Don't you dare hurt them."
"Get me my money, and they'll be fine. I don't like hurting people, you know. But sometimes people need a little persuasion."
"I swear to God, if you hurt my family in any way, I'll kill you."
Drizell tilted her head back and laughed. "You? A grubby little waif with no more than a struggling shop and a thousand shakas to her name? What are you going to do?" She smiled, her eyes cold, and poked one finger into Wendy's chest. "I'm a member of the oldest, most powerful family in this city. I have connections everywhere. No one can touch me. If you try to expose me, I will have you and your entire family killed. A word from me will wipe them off the face of Garna. You can't do anything to me. You wouldn't dare try."
Wendy's hands clenched. Her nails bit into her palms.
"Do you doubt my power? Perhaps I need to give you a demonstration." She pointed a manicured talon at Wendy.
Her throat tightened, and suddenly she couldn't speak, couldn't draw breath. Her eyes bulged. Her hand flew to her throat as the pressure on her trachea increased. Her vision grayed out, and her head swam. She dropped to her knees. Then, suddenly, the pressure was gone, and air rushed into her lungs. She doubled over in a fit of coughing.
"I could have crushed your windpipe," said Drizell. "It's quite easy to kill someone. Like squashing a spider." She pressed her thumb and forefinger together, inches from Wendy's eyes. "I could have done the same thing from fifty feet away, outside your house, while you slept. I could do it to anyone."
"You wouldn't get away with it," Wendy said, her voice thin and raspy.
"You don't think so? Try me." She smiled. "I've gotten away with worse. It's amazing what people will overlook when there's a fat pile of money in it for them. There's not a man or woman in this world who can't be bought, you know."
Wendy stood and rubbed her throat. Her eyes watered with pain. Hatred welled up inside her, hot and thick. She wanted to ram her fist through those dainty, pearl-like teeth. "If you're so damn rich already, why do you care so much about collecting my debt? Wouldn't it be easier to just...let me go?"
Drizell sniffed. "Nice try."
She shrugged. "I am a lender, my dear. If I let one person get away with not paying me, then word will spread, and soon everyone will be slacking off on their payments. If you want to get anything done in this world, you need to make people afraid of you." Drizell snapped her fingers. "Jackal!"
The door opened, and the Jackal's silver-masked face peered in. "Yes?"
"Escort Ms. Martin out, please."
"Of course." He made a deep, exaggerated bow in Wendy's direction. "Follow me, my lady."
Wendy glared at Drizell, shaking. "I'm warning you. Don't lay a finger on my family. Do whatever you want to me, but leave them out of this."
"Good day," said Drizell.
The Jackal gripped Wendy's arm and steered her out of the room, down the hall. He leaned close and whispered, "I heard everything. You know what this means, don't you?" His arm slipped around her throat, pulling her close. He drew his knife.
Wendy's breathing quickened. She struggled, even knowing she couldn't escape. A cold barb pierced the base of her skull, paralyzing her. She sagged against him, helpless.
One gloved finger caressed her shortened left earlobe. "It looks like your ear's healed up nicely. But now they're uneven." The knife's edge touched her right earlobe. He leaned closer, until his breath rasped close to her ear. "The least I can do is give you a matching set."
Frozen by magic, she couldn't even scream.
Back in the shop, Wendy brewed another pot of tea. Her hands shook as she measured spoons of peppermint blend into the pot. Her right ear throbbed. She'd dabbed some Heal-Fast on it and wrapped it in linen bandages. Now she just had to figure out a way to hide her truncated earlobes from the rest of the world. Maybe a new hairstyle.
Of course, she had bigger problems right now.
She thought about Drizell's smug smile, and her hands shook harder. "That bitch," she whispered. "That cold-blooded, murderous bitch."
What kind of mess had she gotten herself into? She'd known from the beginning that Eva Drizell wasn't on the right side of the law, but she'd had no idea how far that lunatic would go to get her money. Worse, now her family was in danger. If Drizell hurt them...
Wendy gulped. She'd die before letting anything happen to her mother or little sister, but she knew she couldn't protect them from someone as powerful as Drizell. She had one month to come up with twenty-two thousand shakas, and there was no way she could earn that much from shop-sales. She had to think of something, fast.
She paced the room, gripping fistfuls of her hair.
In the front, someone knocked on the door. "What now?" She decided to ignore it. She wasn't in any shape to talk.
Another knock, louder this time.
She clenched her teeth. Damn it. He wasn't going to go away. She stormed to the front of the shop, opened the door, and glared at the man outside. "We're closed," she said. "Come back tomorrow. Unless you want to buy twenty-two thousand shakas' worth of merchandise, that is."
"I'm not buying," said a deep, smooth voice. "I'm selling."
Wendy stared at the newcomer. He was tall and lanky, clad in a stiff-collared black overcoat and black boots. His dark hair was so shiny and flat it appeared to have been lacquered onto his skull. He carried a slim leather case in one hand. "You do buy magical items here, don't you?"
"Normally, yes. But I'm a little short on cash right now. You'll have to try someone else."
"I think this will be worth your while. In fact, this could prove quite profitable for you. I want to offer you a rare opportunity. May I come in?"
She hesitated. It was probably just a ploy. She knew that. Still, she was desperate, and desperation was the mother of gullibility. If there was even a slight chance he was selling something of real value, she couldn't pass this up. "Okay, you've got ten minutes to make your pitch. If I'm not interested by then, you'll have to leave."
"Let's see what you have."
He stepped inside. "What I have, Ms. Martin, is information--information that could make you rich, if you're willing to take a few risks. Is there someplace we can sit down?"
She nodded. "In the back."
She led him to the cluttered room in back of the shop, where a rickety table jostled with the stove for space. "I was just making some tea. Do you want some?"
"No, thank you." The man took a seat, leaned back, and crossed his legs.
The kettle whistled. She turned off the gas, filled a mug with steaming peppermint tea and sat across from the man. "So what is this information?"
"I'll make this brief. You've heard of Eloria's Tear, I take it?"
"Who hasn't?" She sipped her tea. "Actually, I did my senior paper on it back at the University. There's some debate about whether it even exists. I'm inclined to think it does. There's enough historical documentation behind it, but..."
"Supposing I knew where it was. How much would you pay for that information?"
Wendy's jaw dropped. She set her tea down, sat up straighter and stared at him, but she saw no hint of a playful smile on his face. "You're joking."
"I'm quite serious."
"You are talking about the Eloria's Tear, aren't you? The legendary holy stone created by St. Eloria? You know where it is?"
"And you expect me to believe you? People have been trying to find Eloria's Tear for centuries."
"I have in my possession a very old, very valuable document. A scroll with a detailed map leading straight to the Tear. Some grubby, illiterate miner found it in an underground ruin in Pocopo. He had no idea what he'd stumbled upon. He sold it to me for seventy-five shakas." The man chuckled. "I doubt that dirt-crusted simpleton will ever realize what he gave up."
Yuck, thought Wendy. This guy practically exuded sleaziness, like an oily substance seeping out of his pores. She had the impression she'd have to wipe something slimy off the seat when he left. But if he was telling the truth... "So where is it, this scroll?"
The man stood. He set the leather case on the table, flipped open the clasp, and lifted the lid. Inside lay a cloth-wrapped bundle. Wendy watched as he unwrapped it, revealing a yellowed scroll so old it looked like it might crumble apart at a touch. A chill crept up Wendy's spine. The scroll emanated a sense of age and power, so strong the air shimmered around it. Her Gift wasn't good for much, but she could sense magic. She breathed in, and it coated her tongue, rich and bitter-sweet, like fine wine. Mesmerized, she reached out to touch the faded parchment.
He snapped the case shut. "Tut-tut," he said. "No touchy."
Wendy scowled. "Okay, let me ask you this. If this is real, why don't you just go after Eloria's Tear yourself? Surely, that's worth more than whatever you could make selling the scroll to me."
"Because I'm not a treasure hunter. Poking around in ruins and dark caverns has never held much appeal for me. It's a tedious, time-consuming process."
"You could hire someone to find it for you."
"If I did that, there's a good chance I'd never get it. Whoever found the Tear might run off with it and sell it on some underground market, then disappear with the money. Even if that didn't happen, I'd have to deal with the Bureau of Magical Artifacts and their meddling, since the Tear would almost certainly be classified as a level five artifact. I don't want the bother. I'm a man who likes to make money with as little effort or fuss as possible."
"That, I believe."
He smiled that thin, tight-lipped smile. "So, are you interested?"
"I want to see that scroll first. Give me a chance to look it over, to make sure it's the real deal."
"Don't be stupid. You know it's not a fake. You felt its power, didn't you?"
"Yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean it contains what you say it does."
He shrugged. "If you're not interested, I can easily take my offer elsewhere. You're simply the first person on my list. Believe me, there'll be no shortage of potential buyers." He buffed his nails on his coat collar. "I happen to know, however, that you're in a rather thorny predicament with a lender. I thought you'd appreciate this opportunity."
She tensed. "How do you know anything about my situation? Have you been spying on me?"
"I wouldn't call it spying. I just keep my ear to the ground. I like to know what's going on in this city. It's good for business...and my sources tell me you've run into trouble with Drizell. Judging by your ears, she's starting to get impatient."
So he'd singled her out because he knew she'd be desperate enough to buy without asking too many questions. Highly suspicious. Yet the scroll wasn't a fake, she was certain of that much. "How much do you want?"
Wendy sucked air through her teeth. She'd known it wouldn't be cheap, but that was all the money she had in the world right now. She gulped, and her tongue stuck like glue to the roof of her dry mouth. "I can give you three hundred."
"I'm not going to haggle with you. One thousand is my price. Considering the rarity of what I'm selling, it's an extraordinary bargain."
"I don't have that much."
"Then I'll find someone who does." He stood and picked up his case again.
"Are you serious about this or not? I'm a very busy man. I can't stand here chatting with you all day. I'm supposed to be meeting my associate in..." He lifted a gold watch on a chain and glanced at it. "Half an hour."
"One thousand, and not a single shaka less. Are you buying? Or shall I take this offer to the next person on my list?"
"Just give me a minute. Half a minute. I need to think."
"All right, but the clock is ticking."
Wendy buried her fingers in her hair. Her head spun. This was insane. She couldn't spend her last thousand shakas on a wild gamble like this. Still, Eloria's Tear was worth far more than a thousand shakas. If this was real, she could pay off her debts and be free of Drizell for good. "Five hundred," she blurted out. "How's that?"
"Never mind," said the man. He turned. "I can see I'm wasting my time here."
She groaned. "Wait, wait! Just a minute..." She dragged her battered safe-box out from the pantry, spun the combination lock and lifted the lid. "This had better be for real." She pulled two fat pouches from the safe and tossed them onto the table. "One thousand. Go ahead and count it. Now, can I see the damn thing?"
He smiled. "Of course. Be careful. The parchment is very fragile." He flipped open the leather case.
Holding her breath, Wendy touched the scroll. The ancient parchment was soft, almost silky. As she unrolled it, a warm, tingling energy crept through her fingertips and up her arm. Startled, she jerked her hand back, then touched the parchment with one finger. The energy flowed through her again. Goose bumps rose on her skin. She closed her eyes, heart thumping. Deep in her mind, she heard distant voices, a ghostly chorus whispering half-understood words. The whispers echoed upward from the darkness beneath her thoughts, rose from within her and whirled around her like a wind.
She'd never felt anything like it.
She opened her eyes, dazed, her head still humming with those half-heard voices. She took a deep breath and focused on the scroll. Writing covered the yellowed parchment. She recognized the letters as ancient Kadish. The spidery ink-lines had faded over time, so only a dim ghost remained, but most of it was still legible. There were maps, too; detailed drawings of chambers and tunnels.
Wendy had studied Kadish in college, but most of that knowledge had slipped away now, and she recognized only a few words. She could translate it later, though. Her eyes skimmed over the first map, an ink drawing of a landmass shaped like a dragon's head. She didn't recognize any of the words written around it, but she recognized the land's shape. "The Northeast Territory," she murmured.
"That's correct." He counted coins into stacks, a smirk on his lips. "Inside the Edge Mountains. Travel north to a town called Jacob's Hill. It's about a day and a half by broomstick. From there, it's just a short hop to the foothills. The scroll gives you all the information you need to find the entrance."
"To the city. There's an abandoned rock gnome city inside the mountains. The Tear is hidden somewhere inside."
"One more thing," said Wendy. "If I need to ask any questions, can I get in contact with you?"
"Of course." He pulled a card from his pocket and held it out between his first two fingers. She took it, being careful not to let her fingers brush his; she felt a strong aversion to touching him. "The name's Threed." He bared his teeth in a smile. "A pleasure doing business with you."
"The pleasure's all mine," she muttered.
He gathered his money and stood. "You understand, of course, that this information is only for your eyes. Don't tell anyone where you're going or why. Otherwise, you may find that the Tear is gone when you arrive."
"I'm not an idiot."
"Good. And one more thing. Be careful. Whoever hid Eloria's Tear may have left something to guard it. There's no telling what's inside those mountains."
"Thanks. I'll remember that."
"Good day, Miss Martin." He walked out.
Wendy stared at the card, a rectangle of stiff, white paper with the name A. THREED stamped in black, and an address below it.
She'd just handed all her remaining money to a man who practically had "untrustworthy" written on his forehead. No contract, no way to get her money back if this turned out to be a bust. She wondered if she'd just done something incredibly stupid. Probably. But what choice did she have? One thousand shakas wouldn't have kept Drizell happy for long, anyway. She had to take a risk.
"Never look back," she whispered and slipped the card into her pocket.
"This is crazy."
"Don't worry." Wendy handed her sister the register keys. "I'll be back in a week. Two weeks, tops. I really appreciate you watching the shop while I'm gone. Just remember to lock up at night, and don't sell anything in the red cabinet to minors. I've written you a whole novel of instructions, so if you're uncertain about anything, just look it up."
"I still think you're crazy." Julie planted her hands on her hips. "I mean, you said yourself this guy was a scumbag."
"He was an ass, but the scroll was the real deal."
"He could have just enchanted it to feel real."
"I would have known."
"I don't know if I can explain it. But I wouldn't have gotten very far in this business if I couldn't tell the difference."
Julie crossed her arms over her chest. "Even your Gift can be wrong sometimes."
"Come on, sis." Wendy forced a smile. "Where's your sense of adventure? If this pays off, we'll be rich beyond our wildest dreams."
"And if not?"
She shrugged. "Then I'll be out a thousand shakas and a little bit wiser."
"Just like that?"
"I just have to see if this is for real, or the lost opportunity will haunt me the rest of my life. Think about it. No more money problems for any of us. We'll pay off Mom's house. You can finish school. We'll eat lobster every night."
"If this pays off."
"Well, yeah. But I have a feeling it will. Just don't tell Mom about this yet, okay? If she asks, tell her I'm visiting a friend."
Julie sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "This is just like when we were kids. You were always running off to do some crazy, dangerous thing, and somehow you always convinced me to lie for you. I don't know why I let you do this to me."
"Well, you know how Mom worries. The truth will just scare her."
"It scares me. This is all so sudden. I mean, you're going into the middle of nowhere, alone. You could be kidnapped and sold into slavery, or raped by bandits, or--"
"That isn't going to happen. I'll be flying over most of that territory. And I can check in with you using the scrye-glass. You still have yours, right?"
"Of course. But scrye-glasses only work over a certain distance. Once you're out of range--"
"I know. You'll just have to trust that I know enough not to get myself killed."
"I don't feel at all confident of that. I wish you'd at least wait 'til tomorrow. Wouldn't it make more sense to travel in daylight?"
"I can't really explain it, but I have to go tonight."
"This isn't like you, being so secretive." Julie bit her lower lip. Suddenly, she looked much younger than her twenty-two years. "What aren't you telling me?"
The sour taste of guilt filled Wendy's mouth, and she had to look away. She couldn't meet those big, concerned brown eyes. "I can't explain it. I'm sorry. This is just something I have to do."
"I can see I'm not going to talk you out of it," Julie said quietly. "Just be careful. Okay? Promise?"
"Promise." Wendy gave Julie a quick, firm hug. "Thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it."
Julie sighed. "Whatever. Just try to come back in one piece."
"You're almost as bad as Mom."
Julie paused. "Wendy? What happened to your ears? They look...different."
"Oh." She swallowed, mouth dry. "I, uh, decided to have my earlobes shortened. Haven't you heard? It's the new look. Lots of people are doing it."
Her explanation must not have been very convincing, because Julie's look of baffled concern deepened. "If you say so." She paused. "You're pale. Is something wrong?"
"No, no, I'm fine. Just tired. I didn't sleep well last night." Wendy cleared her throat. "I need to go pack." She turned and trudged upstairs.
The room above the shop doubled as her apartment. Cramped and cluttered, more an attic than a living space, it served her needs nonetheless. A four-poster bed stood in one corner, covered with a rumpled patchwork quilt her mother had given Wendy for her sixteenth birthday. Above the headboard was a bookshelf. Well-worn textbooks--The Complete Guide to Potion-Making, Magical Artifacts, and Magical Law--stood alongside cheap, paperback erotic novels. On the bedside table sat Filbert, the stuffed dragon she'd had since she was three, now faded to a soft olive green. A small, dingy, round window let sunlight in, and a cracked mirror stood next to the bed.
She checked her reflection and ran a brush through her tawny, shoulder-length hair. She tied most of it back in a loose tail and arranged the rest so it covered her ears, then threw some clothes into a pack. She'd already dressed for the journey: wool tunic, trousers, heavy boots and gloves...and of course, her big, warm cloak, dyed a rich navy blue. She slipped her faded, canvas pack on under the cloak and tightened the straps. With the broom-handle under one arm, she walked downstairs.
Julie had waited. "Is that all you're bringing?"
"Almost. Hand me those keys."
Julie passed Wendy the ring of keys, and she unlocked the red cabinet behind the counter. She scanned the shelves, selected a thumb-sized bottle of green potion, and tucked it into her pack.
"Boost juice," she said. At Julie's puzzled look, she added, "A magic-strengthening potion. I don't expect to get in any trouble, but if I need to, I can take that to give my spells some more oomph."
"Isn't that a controlled potion?"
Wendy winced. She made a mental note not to underestimate her sister's knowledge of magical law. "Kind of."
"What do you mean, kind of?" Julie crossed her arms over her chest, and for a moment she looked so much like their mother that it was scary.
"I mean, you can sell it as long as you have a permit. I'm in the process of getting one, but the permits cost three hundred shakas and there's usually a month-long wait. It's just another way for the city to make money. Come on, don't look at me like that. You know I'm honest, I just don't have any patience for red tape. What difference does it make whether I have some piece of paper with official seals all over it?"
Julie sighed. "This is exactly why you get into trouble and end up paying those enormous fines. Honestly, I don't know how you're still in business after that mess with the dragon-horn powder. I guess now isn't the time, but when you get home, we're going to have a talk about this."
Wendy's shoulders relaxed. By that time, hopefully, Julie would have forgotten. "Sure."
Julie held out one hand. A silver stud earring with a bright blue stone glittered in her palm. "Take this too."
"What is it?"
"A charm against pregnancy and diseases."
"Why would I need that? I'm not planning to get laid during this trip."
Julie gave her a solemn look. "It might happen whether or not you want it. You're a woman traveling alone. There are certain dangers--"
"Oh, stop it!" she snapped. "I'm not going to get raped. You've been listening to Mom too much. She's got you thinking the world is filled with shadowy bogeymen waiting to leap out and snatch young women. I told you, I'll be on my broom the whole time. How many rapists do you think are lurking in the lower stratosphere?"
"Just take it. Take it, and I'll shut up and let you go."
Wendy sighed, took the earring and secured it to her right ear. She looked at her sister's round, freckled face and felt her expression soften. "Thanks, Julie. I'll contact you tomorrow." She walked toward the door.
Julie reached out and caught her arm. "You sure you're okay?"
Wendy tried to speak. Her throat swelled with unshed tears. She swallowed and nodded. "Sure. Sure, I'm fine." She walked out of the shop.
As soon as she stepped through the door, her chest tightened and her heart leapt. She was leaving Julie alone, vulnerable. What if Drizell came after her family while she was gone?
Wendy took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Drizell had given her a month. They'd be safe for that long, at least. And if she didn't pay Drizell, her family would be targeted, no question about it. She hated leaving them alone, but she had no choice. Eloria's Tear was her last chance to save them...and herself.