“You didn’t tell me the Bear Rider would be there.” The Wolf glowered at the cloaked figure standing in front of her, licking a wound on her paw. “I was told I could have giant flesh for my children. I should devour you instead.”
It was an empty threat, and she knew it. The Wolf was still sore from the blow dealt to her by the young giant, and she didn’t want to disturb her nursing pups.
“I didn’t know the ‘bear rider’ would be there,” the cloaked human said. “I didn’t guarantee you’d be able to eat any of them. What about the human?”
The Wolf snorted and bared her teeth. “She smelled of poison! Curses. If we ate her, it’d spread to our bodies.”
“Of course, as I expected. Tell me though, tell me what I need to know.” In the pale moonlight, what little of the cloaked figure’s body that was visible appeared pale and stout. She didn’t smell entirely human, and the Wolf could tell she’d slathered herself in herbs to disguise her scent. How irritating.
But The Wolf needed what the woman offered, or her children would grow up as tiny and dull as the other wolves in the pack.
“We smelled flowers on the human, yes. Honeysuckle and roses. Not a perfume. And again, poisoned blood.” The Wolf folded her ears back. “Now hand it over.”
“Shhh. Just a minute.” The woman dug through a pouch, producing a handful of jewels carved smooth like peas. “If they each swallow one of these, you’ll have three Enlightened pups. I guarantee it. But!” She snatched her hand closed and pulled the jewels away. “I can only offer one right now.”
“Only one?! You would have me choose between my own children who gets to speak and live long, and who is tiny and dull?!”
The woman was unmoved by the Wolf’s anger. “They’re just very difficult to make! I can’t give them away for information alone. But you want to eat the giant, right? And the bear prince?”
“And his flea-infested bear.” The Wolf snorted.
“Tell you what. You can take one of these now, if you’d like. Or you can bring me the prince’s heart and proof that you’ve devoured the giant, and get all three for your cubs.”
“What do you want with a prince’s heart? It’s just meat.”
The woman smiled. “Of course it’s just meat to a beast. But you can do this for me? Deliver the prince’s heart, and your children will grow up Enlightened. I guarantee it.”
The Wolf’s first instinct was to go for the immediate, guaranteed reward. She genuinely didn’t like attacking humans. Humans weren’t like deer; they spread rumors around, and going after the wrong one could bring hunters down on the forest to exterminate their kind. A prince was too prominent a target.
And yet, she was the only Enlightened wolf left in the woods. Her mate having drowned in the last flood, she alone held the shining intelligence to know why attacking humans was unwise. When she went, her children would be ruled by their appetites and instincts alone. Such tools were useful, but paled in comparison to the weapons and wits of humanity.
“You’ll get your prince’s heart. I’ll spit it out at your feet.” She flared her nostrils and flashed her teeth again. “Now go away, before I decide to eat you.”
The woman only laughed as she pocketed the precious jewels. “You’d be dead in a week if you ate me! And I’d just come right back, like a mushroom in the rain. Do what you want, old wolf. You know where to find me.”
“Eye of a newt? Got a good eye of a newt here!”
Marjorie flashed her best polite smile, ignoring the terrible smell as she passed the handsome vendor who specialized in eyeballs. He was situated next to a booth selling nightcrawlers for spell-casting purposes. Was she really going to have to eat something here with her medicine? It was always so much work summoning up any appetite after walking through the Magic Quarter.
The Magic Quarter wasn’t really a quarter. By her reckoning it took up less than an eighth of the circular Market. They appealed to a very specific sort of clientele, and considering how hard it was to even find the Market one assumed they had regulars. Regulars who appreciated tiny carved likenesses of things for reasons of their own, reasons Marjorie told herself were none of her business. Witches and wizards had to make a living too, doing whatever it is they did, and she was really only concerned with one particular sort of magic.
Just her luck, there was no sign of any Green Magic among the stalls hawking scrolls and charms. She couldn’t find so much as a potted carnivorous plant or a packet of seeds. Was that one witch aware that Marjorie was onto her, and had she taken her business elsewhere? If Marjorie had showed her hand too quickly and blown the whole plan, she was going to have to slap herself.
A wave of dizziness hit her. She had to grab onto the pole of a lamp to balance herself, waiting for it to pass. “I’m fine,” she reassured the confused potion vendor with a woozy smile. “Really! Just had some strong wine earlier.”
Oh, this was not a good time for her condition to start acting up. Who knew if any of these magicians could detect curses? She reached into the satchel at her waist, patting the bag to make sure it was still there. Good, she’d remembered the medicine. She’d just need to stop by one of the stalls for something to eat, at Philomene’s insistence.
Realizing she was getting another stare from the potion vendor, she flashed another smile and pretended to pull out a handkerchief, covering her mouth with it. She used the cover of the crowd noises to speak softly into the garnet stone on her ring.
“They’re selling potions today in little sample bottles. I suppose it’s the kind where you pay for more later if you like it. They’re about half your height, Princess, if you’re interested.”
A second passed before a soft voice spoke back to her through the garnet stones in her earrings. “What manner of potion?”
“Let’s see. Business success, crop abundance, love…”
“Ugh! Love potions are terribly distasteful.” One could almost see Philomene shuddering through the tone of her voice. “But that one about crop abundance might hold a clue if I can break it down to its composite parts.”
“If these aren’t fakes.” Marjorie mimicked a sneeze to keep her handkerchief from looking too suspicious as she continued, eyeing the series of tiny, wax-topped bottles. “At the very least he’s gone and colored them artificially. There’s a luck potion, too.”
“That one is definitely a fake,” Philomene said. “No one’s been able to manifest good fortune or luck through magic in a proven way. It’s mostly a placebo effect made to exploit the unfortunate, since ‘luck’ is such a difficult concept to objectively define for more than a single individual. But luck potions usually contain mandrake oil, and I’ve been meaning to do some experiments with mandrake oil. Old wizards used it to apply enchantments to living things. Like plants, for instance?”
“Right!” Marjorie trusted Philomene with that part, as she didn’t understand any of it. “Luck and crop abundance it is. And before you say it, of course I’ll keep the latter as far away from my insides as possible. You needn’t worry, Princess.”
“Good! And have you taken your medicine?”
Marjorie glanced ruefully at the herbs, recalling her dizzy spell. Those dried leaves managed to make anything she ate taste like bitter greens and soap. “Of course,” she fibbed. “Right on schedule.” It would be close enough to schedule, she told herself. She’d just make for the rabbit soup and catch up with Ezra after she bought those potion samples.
Philomene sounded skeptical on the other line. “Just do take care of yourself. Royal order!” The transmission cut out, and Marjorie wondered for a moment if she’d upset Philomene, biting her lip.
But it was for the best. The princess had enough to worry about without giving Marjorie’s condition a thought. It was backwards, royalty fretting over a servant.
She’d managed to haggle towards what she thought was a perfectly reasonable trade for the potion samples, much to the chagrin of the vendor, when she spotted a large, white shape coming towards her in the crowds. Where there was a white bear, there was Basil. “What is that kid doing here? He’s going to tick off some witch and end up a frog,” she muttered to herself as she stalked out to meet him.
Hiding her irritation, Marjorie flashed a look of innocent surprise. “Oh, Basil! Your Highness, so glad to run into you again!”
Basil was walking alongside Aurora, and while it was hard to read his expression behind his scarf, his voice suggested confusion and displeasure. “My lady Marjorie. I was speaking with young Mr. Kettle.”
“Were you? I’m so glad you two are getting along. He’s a fine, upstanding sort. Business-minded. Doesn’t smile much, but he’s got a big heart under the big everything else. Seems to like you!” Marjorie could tell Ezra was taken with the prince right away. She’d filed that under information that might be potentially useful; at the very least, it gave Ezra a reason to stick around.
“Yes! I think I may have earned his respect despite my inferior strength and size. He shan’t look down on this human!” Basil beamed and looked like he was about to strike one of his triumphant poses, but hesitated. “That’s just it. You see, he mentioned-”
Marjorie’s stomach did a flip-flop, and she had to steady herself leaning on Aurora this time. The bear just grunted, though Basil ran to her side to support her. She offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry! I just forgot to eat. Very silly of me, really. You’d think I wouldn’t have that problem, living with a baker!”
“Forgot to eat!? Here.” Basil thrust a garlic bun in her hands, pulled from a little sack he held in his free hand. “They were on sale, and my eyes were bigger than my stomach. Eat it, I insist!”
She stared at the knot-shaped bun. Garlic wasn’t her favorite flavor, but maybe it would overpower the taste of the medicine. “Thank you,” she said sincerely. It took quick, practiced handiwork to slip the herbs into a bite of the roll, but it did the trick. They went down quickly, and Basil didn’t notice her involuntary shudder.
Basil cleared his throat, looking uncertain. “My lady, if you’re feeling better, I do have some questions. You see, you told me you had a sick grandmother. I thought this was a little fishy, but I imagined you must have had some more distressing reason for living in the woods, being a damsel and all. Except I’m starting to think-”
A tiny voice came in over Marjorie’s earrings, alarmed. “Marjorie! This isn’t good. The Toad’s here!”
“The what?!” Marjorie realized she’d said it aloud, and tried to diffuse Basil’s stare with a sheepish smile. She couldn’t manage it through her alarm, however, leaving her wondering what sort of face she’d made instead.
“I’m sure it’s him. I’m going to call Melchior and find a safe place to hide, but the laboratory’s been compromised. Get back here as soon as you can, and bring that giant in case it’s not safe for you!” Philomene’s transmission ended, leaving Marjorie standing and leaning on Aurora again, her heart thumping in her chest.
The Toad couldn’t be back, could he? How could he have found them? Who was tracking them? They’d gone so far already. Were they going to have to find another hiding place? Leave it to the cowardly Toad to send someone after the little princess when Marjorie was away. What a fool’s errand this night had proved to be.
“My lady? Marjorie, are you sure you’re alright?” Basil touched her arm, and Marjorie shook him off as gently as she could.
“We need to go. I’m…really not feeling well.” It wasn’t a lie this time. She brushed her forehead with her handkerchief, though the queasiness in her stomach had nothing to do with a fever and everything to do with all the terrible threats the princess could face. What if the Toad had sent wasps? A raccoon? Gods forbid, what if he sent in a hungry snake?
The ploy worked well enough. As Marjorie suspected, Basil couldn’t resist the rare chance to perform a real act of heroism. He hopped onto the bear and pulled her atop it, letting her sit side-saddle. “Come on, girl,” he urged Aurora. “We’ll find Ezra and be on our way. Worry not, fair lady!”
“You’re very kind.” Marjorie couldn’t help but notice how genuine Basil was, dropping his legitimate concerns about her obvious lie the moment her health was at stake. She really did feel a little bad about exploiting the young prince’s aspirations. He’d be a fine Prince Charming someday, if he got over the speeches.
But there would be a time for honesty, and that time was not when the princess’s life was in danger.
Philomene clung to the furry back of Melchior, not daring to move and barely allowing herself to breathe. The Atlas moth was perched on top of the rafters, sensing her alarm and staying still as death. All they could do was wait it out, Philomene told herself, until Marjorie returned. She hated being so dependent on others, but perhaps that was a necessity in the great, vast world of humans.
She allowed herself one brief glance over the edge of Melchior’s wings, pulling away immediately and shuddering. The monsters were prowling the bedroom, perching on the bed and knocking Marjorie’s blown glass sculptures aside carelessly. One sat right on top of her dollhouse, waiting for her to return. They knew how to climb and could jump great heights, even in a house built for a giant; sooner or later, one of them would find her up there.
One thing she knew for certain; this was a deliberate attack. Ten cats didn’t sneak into forest cottages all at once by coincidence. And she knew the shape sitting in the windowsill, mocking her before it leaped away.
The Toad wanted to make sure she knew she was never, ever safe.