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Colorado wasn’t supposed to be this hot. The sun beat down on her whenever she wasn’t walking in the shade, and because everyone else had the same idea of walking in the shade, it was crowded there. Was it always this crowded?
Kit hadn’t seen a Renaissance festival before. She didn’t even know if there was one in Washington State. A lot of people were dressed in costumes, even people who paid money to get in the gate. There were people dressed like knights, walking around parboiling themselves in plate armor. Women wore tight corsets and long skirts and hats bedecked with ostrich plumes. Some people wore chainmail over medieval tabards. Other people wore chainmail over a bra, or over nothing at all, which made Kit chafe in sympathy.
They must have had a drought that year, because the grass was brown, even where it wasn’t trampled to death by the thousands of feet. The air had the sweet smell of straw, and woodsmoke, and beer, and unwashed people, and from somewhere a roasting smell of meat and sweet cinnamon.
Kit walked to a shop selling hats. She placed a pointed pink satin princess hat on her head, and angled the mirror so she could see the crowd of people behind her. He was there again, the guy of the yellow windbreaker. This time he was wearing a white Budweiser tee shirt, sunglasses, a ball cap, and khaki shorts exposing pale hairy legs. She had to commend him. If you wanted to fit in at a Renaissance festival, that wasn’t a bad outfit. His sunglasses hid the direction of his gaze, and his torso was angled towards the bellydancer shimmying in front of him, but his toes were pointed at her.
She picked a straw bonnet with enormous orange silk flowers on it. The hat was too garish for every possible occasion, excepting possibly a horse race or a royal wedding, but it kept the sun off, and it would make it easier for yellow windbreaker guy to follow her.
The proprietress looked like a normal woman, dark and gray-haired with a stout figure and wrinkled hands. Flames rippled over her shoulders when she moved, and illusionary smoke followed her as she walked. Kit didn’t know what kind of otherfolk the woman was, and didn’t think it polite to ask. There were a lot of otherfolk working at the Renaissance festival. The people working the food booths and parking the cars were mostly local teens with a habit of ignoring anyone over the age of nineteen, but quite a few of the shop owners and touring acts had at least one member who was an immigrant from the Realm of the Faerie, mostly Vargel and Indel, and Kit had seen a group of three were-deer walking together. As she was writing up the purchase, Kit brought out the picture she’d gotten in Wolfridge.
“Have you seen this man? I was told her works here. His name is Luke.”
The flame and smoke woman took the phone in her hands and peered at the photo. She frowned. “Can’t say I have, m’lady. Have you asked Lady Elspeth?”
“No. Who is Lady Elspeth?”
“Large woman in a particolored skirt with all the children. She carries a parasol. She knows everyone. If this knave works here, she can probably tell you.”
“Where can I find her?”
“This time of day she’ll be with the washerwomen. They do a bit together.”
“Thank you,” Kit said. She held up the hand mirror on the counter as if inspecting her hat one more time, checking out the crowd behind her. Yup. He had his back to her at the beer booth, as if he were still trying to make up his mind after twenty minutes of staring up at the beer menu.
Yellow windbreaker man followed as Kit made her way towards Lady Elspeth. When she stopped to look at her map, he picked up a souvenir pottery mug. When she came out of the privies, he stood engrossed, watching a man dressed as a harlequin juggle pieces of fruit.
Kit found the washerwomen by backtracking the wet audience members and muddy children. When she got there, a crowd had gathered in a semi-circle around a ring of dancing children.
Lady Elspeth had a white painted face, and a dress full of color and ornamentation. She had chains and pearls around her neck and stripes of many-colored-fabric sewn together like a quilt to make her voluminous skirt. Various items hung from her belt: a small telescope, a stuffed ferret, a gyroscope, a brass cup, a net bag with juggling balls. She held a red and pink parasol with fabric roses on the edges of the ribs. She was orchestrating a dance and song with the children, clapping and spinning around to the chorus “the wren, the wren, the king of the birds.” Kit waited until they finished before approaching.
“Lady Elspeth?” Kit said, holding her phone with the picture of Luke on it. “May I have a moment of your time?”
“Certainly m’lady,” she said. She was human, in her late forties or early fifties. Her smile diminished only a little when she peered down at Kit’s phone. She used her parasol to shade the screen.
“Luke. Aye, I know him.” Lady Elspeth kept her same accent, staying in character. “This fellow used to work at one of Carrie Ann’s game booths. I think he was at the archery one, over by the blacksmith shop. I haven’t seen him here this year though.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“At Scarborough, I think.”
“When was that?”
“It runs in May, but he wasn’t there the whole time. He left a few weeks in. Carrie Ann can tell you more about him. She was worried because he was sweet on one of her girls, and she thought he was too old for her.”
“Where can I find Carrie Ann?”
“I think she’s at the belly dance pavilion.” Lady Elspeth pointed, tilting the parasol to shade her eyes. Sweat had caused the makeup to run off at her temples. “Go that way past the leather mug shop, make a left at the chocolate flower booth, and keep going until you see what looks like a purple tent.”
Kit thanked her and followed Lady Elspeth’s directions. It took nearly twenty minutes to get there. She resisted the urge to turn around and make sure that the yellow windbreaker guy was still following her. If he couldn’t follow this hat, he was useless, and if Albers had hired him, he probably wouldn’t be useless. Assuming that Albers was the one who had hired him.
The front of the tent housed astonishingly ornate, and astonishingly expensive, bellydance outfits. You could get a bra, bedecked with coins, and a matching coin belt, and a matching skirt, and a tiny bolero jacket, and maybe some glittery flowers for your hair, and if you really wanted to break the bank, you could pick up some palm flames and a curved sword to balance on your head. A skinny tattooed girl with heavy eyeliner appeared to be the only one working on this hot afternoon, but she pointed to the bellydancer’s pavilion when Kit asked after Carrie Ann. Kit walked to the back of the shop, where what appeared to be the frame for a gazebo had been retrofitted with burgundy upholstery cloth to make a heavy-walled room.
Kit lifted the carpet that served as a door, and let her eyes adjust to the darkness. More carpets covered the ground, so that you could barely see the canvas tarp protecting them from the grass and mud underneath. A plastic bottle filled with water tucked into a corner of the gazebo served as a skylight. It smelled like dry grass, and incense, and female sweat. Plastic tubs stacked along one side of the wall held what appeared to be costumes. A propane heater and two tightly rolled sleeping bags were piled on a folding camp cot, along with two pillows and a satchel. Next to the cot, a large mirror tilted precariously against one of the poles, and baskets with sunscreen, tiny metal cymbals, and water bottles were shoved near the mirror, as if dancers cached them there between shows.
Two women sat on cushions, one leafing through a magazine, the other pouring something into a jeweled goblet. The one leafing through the magazine had hennaed hair and a curvy figure. The other one had Betty Page bangs and false eyelashes. A third woman wore only a batik skirt, but appeared unselfconscious as she arranged a scarf as a halter top. “Can I help you?”
“Sorry to intrude. I’m looking for Carrie Ann,” Kit said.
“She’ll be back in a minute,” the woman said, unwinding the scarf to try again. “You could wait if you wanted. I’m Sarah, Carrie Ann’s girlfriend.”
“Thank you.” Kit removed her ridiculous hat and sat herself on one of the cushions. Yellow windbreaker guy wouldn’t be able to follow her in here. “I’m Kit. I’m trying to get information about a man who used to work for her.”
Kit leaned forward to show Sarah the picture on her phone. Unfortunately, Kit partially blocked the entrance to the pavilion. Carrie Ann returned a second later, carrying three paper bowls, steaming with the odor of pepper and coconut. One of the bowls slipped out of her hands as she came in, and she spat out a curse as spicy Thai curry dripped down her arm and onto Kit’s hat.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Kit said. She licked the spicy curry off her arm, down to her index finger. It burned her tongue and lips where it touched, but the peanut aftertaste was addicting. “It’s only a hat.”
“Carrie Ann, this is Kit.”
Carrie Ann had handed off the remaining bowls of curry to the other woman. She wiped her hand on a handkerchief hanging from her belt, then extended it to shake with Kit.
Carrie Ann was a Vargel. The same jewel that let Kit spot lycanthropes let her see through faerie glamours as if they weren’t even there. Even so, Kit might not have known had Carrie Ann not sworn in her own language. Carrie Ann passed for human. She was older, for one. In the Realm of the Faerie, everyone seemed fixed in youthful perpetuity, like film stars. Carrie Ann had crows’ feet, not well disguised by thick makeup, and her décolleté was pink and spotted from sun damage. She had butterfly tattoos on her neck that had faded from the sun and age.
Carrie Ann looked at her girlfriend, and then back at Kit, as if asking why Kit was there. Kit brought out her phone again, to bring up the picture, but Sarah answered for her.
“She wants to know about Luke.”
“What’d he do? Is this about Tess?” Carrie Ann gave Sarah an ‘I told you so’ look. She spooned curry into her mouth as casually as a human.
“Tess?” Kit looked up from her phone. “Who’s Tess?”
“Tess is a girl who used to work for me. She was dating Luke. I tried to warn her about him, but you know how young girls are. She probably thought she was in love.”
“Maybe she was,” Sarah said. She’d finished winding the scarf into a halter top, and leaned forward to retrieve her own curry.
“Why did you warn Tess against him?”
“He had a dirty aura,” Sarah said.
“He was scum,” Carrie Ann said. “I’ve been working the Faire circuit for twenty years. I can spot a loser when I see one. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had done time for something or other.”
“She was foreign,” Sarah said. “And not more than twenty at the very oldest. A sweet girl.”
Carrie Ann paused to shovel the last of the rice into her mouth. “I was trying to help her out, take her under my wing, and Luke came along. Next thing I know, he’s gone, and so is Tess.”
“Do you know where he went?” Kit asked.
Carrie Ann sniffed a couple of times, and plucked a handkerchief from her belt to wipe her eyes and nose. Kit didn’t blame her. Her eyes were watering from the smell of the curry, and a burning trail snaked around her arm where the chili-laden sauce had dripped along her skin. “I think they went north.”
“Kansas.” Sarah said. She was breathing heavily out of her mouth as the curry burned her. “Chance told Melanie he was going to Kansas for a funeral.”
“Why would Luke go to Chance’s grandma’s funeral?” Carrie Ann asked.
“Chance and Luke were thick as thieves,” Sarah said. She picked up a half-empty water bottle off the floor and brushed some of the dust off it. “I think they served time together. I heard Chance did time for carjacking.”
“Have you tried to contact him since he left?” Kit asked.
Carrie Ann was in the middle of drinking, but she nodded. She put the lid back on. “I emailed and texted Tess, but she didn’t reply. Someone said she left all her stuff here. That’s why I’m worried about her. I think she went with them. I think she’s in trouble.”
“Do you know why they asked her to go with them?”
Carrie Ann shook her head.
“Was there—“ Kit paused. Sometimes you could shut down a conversation completely as soon as you mentioned anything supernatural. “Was there anything supernatural about Tess?”
Sarah and Carrie Ann exchanged a look.
“What do you mean?” Carrie Ann asked, warily.
“Was she a werewolf?” Kit asked.
“Oh!” Sarah clapped her hand to her mouth, which made her belly jiggle. “Oh my god!”
“What?” Carrie Ann asked.
“Remember what Melanie told me about Chance?” Sarah was fluttering her hand in excitement. “Melanie said that the lines on his palm were all wrong. Like on my hand, two go across, and two go up and down.” She held out her own palm to demonstrate. “But on his palm, she said the lines made a pentacle. She told me later that she looked it up, and if the lines on your palms hands form a pentacle, that means you’re a werewolf!”
Kit couldn’t help looking at her own palm, but of course there were only four main lines, two across the palm and two from the wrist to the fingers. James had known this too. Did everyone know this except her? She felt so stupid.
“Oh my god.” Carrie Ann says. “I bet Luke was a werewolf too. That would explain so much.”
“Do you think that Tess was a werewolf?” Kit asked.
“No,” Carrie Ann said. “She was just an innocent girl.”
Sarah plucked her phone out of her bag and tsked. “Hey babydoll, we have to get going.”
“Right.” Carrie Ann stood up and began to gather her cups and paper bowls and trash.
“Thanks for your help,” Kit said. “Let me know if you hear anything else, or think of anything else.”
“Sure,” Carrie Ann said. She looked at the card that Kit gave her, then tucked it into a pouch tied to her belt.
Kit lifted the cloth to let herself out. The sunlight had turned orange-gold as the afternoon grew later. She shaded her eyes with her hand, then put on her hat and headed towards a shop that sold beer and bratwurst. She got two bratwurst and a beer and a lemonade, and balanced them precariously as she headed across the street to where yellow windbreaker guy was pretending to admire some stained glass dragons.
She walked in his direction, not looking at him until the very last minute, when she turned suddenly to face him.
“Here,” she said, extending the beer. “I got this for you.”
He looked like he was about to flee, or dissemble, but as she’d hoped, an extended glass of beer begs a hand to take it. Yellow windbreaker guy reached out and took the glass.
“Better take a brat too,” she said. “I can’t carry them all easily. One has mustard, and one has sauerkraut. You can pick.”
“I’m not hungry,” he said, sounding irritable in his defeat.
“Well, carry it anyway.” She extended his paper tray, and as he took it, she met his eyes and slipped inside, gently, not as completely as she had with the werewolf at the compound, but just an amiable suggestion. “I’m Kit Melbourne. But I suppose you already know that. Let’s go sit on the grass and have a drink and a brat. We have a lot to talk about.”
She nudged him towards a big grassy field. It was dotted with people, and at the far end was a band playing drums and bagpipes. Some children ran holding sticks attached to ribbons, which trailed behind them.
They found a spot next to a woman with a wreath of flowers in her hair blowing soap bubbles over the crowd. It took a few moments for Kit to settle herself on the grass without spilling onions off the bun. She still wasn’t showing much yet, but the babyweight already made her feel off kilter. “Did Albers hire you?”
Yellow windbreaker guy turned instead of answering, people watching. Some guys dressed like Vikings sat on a fur blanket and drank from plastic cups, singing loudly in a language she didn’t know.
“So, that’s a yes?” she asked, fanning herself with the giant hat. The heat was settling to a pleasant warmth.
“I can’t divulge that information.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t be like that.” Kit smiled and met his eyes. She tried again with the suggestion charm, using as delicate a touch as she could. She wished she was better at faerie enchantment. She wasn’t much better at flirting, but the beer would help with that, at least. “If you don’t tell me your name, I’ll make up one for you.”
“Tom,” he said.
“Cheers, Tom,” she said, and touched her plastic cup to his.
“Cheers,” he said. He took a drink of his beer. It smelled amazing, hoppy and malty and tart, and she wished she could have gotten one for herself.
Her lemonade was overly sweet and overly sour. She swirled the ice cubes around in a circle, hoping they would melt and dilute the drink. “Albers doesn’t have to know you got made.”
He narrowed his eyes and drank more beer, neither confirming nor denying it was Albers he was working for. Kit picked up her sausage and bit into it. It was surprisingly good, slathered in caramelized onions and a mustard pebbled with seeds. A trail of hot juice ran down her chin. She caught it with her finger and licked it off, tasting salt and sunscreen along with the fennel-tinged meat juice.
“These are pretty good,” Tom said, tucking into his own brat.
She nodded around her second mouthful. She’d been eating all day; lemon sherbets, bread bowls, kebabs of fresh fruit, and of course a turkey leg, which seemed obligatory. It didn’t matter how much she ate, every two hours she felt famished again.
A breeze picked up, rustling the trees which were just now beginning to shade the performer’s lawn. Tom must have been hungry, because he was already tucking the last bite of sausage into his mouth. He swallowed. “That hat made you pretty easy to follow.”
“I know. That’s why I bought it.”
He raised his eyebrows. “When did you figure out I was following you?”
“I recognized you from the ferry.” She smiled. “You stick out.”
Duh. He was a were-cougar. “And you’re not very good at following.”
He shrugged. “Most of my investigations just involve tracking people down on the computer.”
He drank some more beer. The warm air, the gentle breeze, the music and happy people, the food and the beer had caused him to let down his guard a little. She could feel the resistance to the enchantment she’d slipped in lessen. When he lowered the plastic cup, she met his eye and made another connection. It was easier this time.
“What’s your goal, Tom?” She manipulated the connection. Easy. Easy. Lower your guard.
“To follow you.”
“Why are you working for Albers? Does she have a hold over you?” She tried to make her voice soothing, calm. I’m your friend, she pushed through the connection. You can trust me.
He shook his head. “She’s helping me, that’s all.”
“Ah.” She paused to reconsider the next angle. Smooth, smooth, she pushed through their connection. Lower your guard, everything is easy.
“What about you? Why are you looking for these kids?” he asked.
She blinked and tried to keep her face neutral. “They’re family.”
He snorted. “I’m sure the half million they’re offering has nothing to do with it.”
Half million? She frowned. She still had the connection, and tried to pull on it to steer the conversation away from her. It was nebulous, uncontrolled. “How did you find out I was going to come to the Renaissance festival?”
“Albers has a spy. Guy named Barnabus. He tried to blackmail me, but I shut that fucker down.”
“Barnabus?” The enchantment spiraled away from her, like a spool of kite string dropped into a well. She pulled back, trying to sever it. “But he’s one of James’ best friends. Why would he do that?”
“It was Barnabus.” He definitely sounded drunk now. “Albers has her claws into him too. He’s been telling her everything.”
“What do you know about the werewolves?” She tried to pull off of the enchantment, but it was like trying to get chewing gum off of braces.
“Barnabus has been telling us everything.”
“How did she know about Michael Jimenez?”
“She asked around for me. Like I said, she’s been helping me.”
“Did she kill him?” Pull, pull, pull. Dammit. She couldn’t get free.
Tom gave a drunken snort. “She thinks you killed him.”
“I didn’t.” Her enchantment had wound into him, barely tethered. She hardly had any more control. This had gone badly. She’d have to ask her teachers, the next time she was back in the Realm. Maybe they could explain how she had messed up. “Do you know where Luke is?”
“You gonna kill him?”
“No,” she said. “Of course not. I just want information.”
“This is a dangerous game you’re playing.” His eyes were unfocusing. The music at the end of the field was sprightly, and some people near them had started to dance. Tom had a slack expression, like he couldn’t hear any of it. “Albers already knows Barnabus is dead.”
“Albers thinks you ate him. She’s looking for proof you’re a changer.”
“Did you tell her I wasn’t?” She was still frantically trying to get a hold of her spell again. It was like trying to spindle sea grass floating in a rising tide.
“Why would I do that? She knows there’s a were-cougar. I don’t want her knowing it’s me.”
The strands of the enchantment floated around, sticky, seeming to grow longer and more entangled. What had she done wrong?
“I’ll cut you in on the reward.” Tom still seemed intoxicated, that sleepy half-aware state people get in when they’re so drunk or high that they just say whatever comes into their mind. “Find Chance and Luke, take the kids back, split the money. We don’t have to tell Joyce.”
“Where are Luke and Chance?” Pull, pull, pull. Get this enchantment back under control. She didn’t want him drunk, she wanted him malleable.
“Don’t know,” he said. He peered into the half-full cup as if wondering where all the beer had gone. “Kansas somewhere. Chance has a house. He’s Eli Klo.”
“They aren’t with the Renaissance festivals anymore?” The musicians had started a marching song with a strong beat, Sousa with boudrain and bagpipe. Concentrating on the music seemed to help her get a better grip on the enchantment. Oh, her teachers were going to scold her so much when they heard how badly she had ruined this enchantment. “Do you know where they would have gone?”
“What the fuck is in this beer?”
The musicians had begun a minor chord, medieval themed version of a catchy pop song. She almost hummed along. She kept winding the spell. Coming to the end of it now. “What does Albers want from me?”
“She wants to blackmail you. She loves blackmail.”
“Oh? About what?” Spool spool spool. Getting closer.
“She wants proof you’re a were-cougar.”
“She won’t find it.” Finally. There was the end of the spell. She pulled the slack up. Just leave enough in to get him to talk. She’d have to ask her teacher what she did wrong.
He took a sip of his beer and then peered into the plastic cup like James reading tea leaves. “She’s not as smart as she … what’s in this?”
“Is she blackmailing you?” Kit swirled the ice in her lemonade glass. She sipped it. It was still too lemony, and too sweet.
He shook his head. He was staring into his empty cup of beer. “What the hell was in this beer?”
“Is she blackmailing you?” All her spell had come spooling back. Yes. Finally, she was getting control again. She tightened her grip. “Does she have information about the case? Does she know where Chance and Luke are?”
Tom looked up at her. His brows were furrowed in alarm. “It’s not the beer. It’s you. You did something to me. What the fuck are you?”
“That’s not important right now. Tell me what you know about Chance?”
The band at the far end had just finished their set with a final chord and drumbeat.
“Shit. You’re a witch.” Tom stared at the empty cup and then up at her as if he were about to throw up. His eyes were creased with fear. “You were in my head. You were in my fucking head.”
“I want to find those children, Tom.” Impatience made her voice steely cold. She let the end of the spell play out again. The crowd had begun to chatter and gather their belongings. “Will you help me, or not?”
“You’re a fucking witch!” Tom’s eyes were wide. He scrambled to his feet. “She didn’t say you were a fucking witch.”
“Tom, be reasonable. We can help each other.”
Tom ran off. He stumbled once, falling, sliding on the dry soil, but got up to his feet and kept running, and a second later, he’d vanished into the crowd. She held her hand over her brows and scanned for him, but he’d disappeared into the crowd full of other sunburned white guys with tee shirts and ball caps.
Like the book, but short on cash? New chapter next week!