Suzanne keeps us orderly and we don’t quite know how she does it considering the giant brood she chases after at home, no one quite knows how to multitask like this mother. We felt she deserved a bit of a break, just like the Sookie in this tale, but inevitably in the rich tapestry of chaos created here, trouble and a certain Viking can never be far behind 😉
Day 9: A gift for SUZYMEINEN
A vacation. Just a few weeks of peace. Was that really too much to ask? I deserved one, surely, after the takeover, after everything I’d done for the vampires. Telling me I couldn’t go was never going to fly with me.
Rating T; Sookie’s POV
The Night Market
by Magpie Tales
“Let’s go, slowpoke,” Amelia called from the corridor, rapping on the door.
“Coming,” I called back, hunting for my gloves and scarf. There! On the dresser.
They were red to match my cranberry coat, and I’d bought them when I discovered that December on this side of the Atlantic was a lot colder than this Southern girl could take without a layer of wool. I threw the scarf around my neck and shoved the gloves in a pocket, but as I got to the door the feeling I’d forgotten something came over me. I patted my pockets, checked my tote bag and glanced around the hotel room, but I couldn’t put my finger on what I’d left behind. Then I realised what it was I was missing.
Tall, blonde and dead.
Sadly, Eric wasn’t hiding under the bed. Or in the closet. Neither had he graced my hotel room in Paris last week, nor the one in Rome the week before that. It had been almost three weeks since I’d seen him, and considering the terms we parted on hadn’t been altogether amicable, I ought to stop expecting him to show up any moment.
Somehow, I couldn’t shake the hope that he would.
That was ridiculous, especially when the sun was up. Even more ridiculous because I was the one who had run when the going got tough, and to another continent no less. Still, I was missing him like crazy.
But I’d promised myself I wouldn’t waste what was likely to be my one and only tour of Europe on any pity parties, and Amelia was waiting. Shaking off the heavy, sinking loneliness that threatened to creep over me whenever I thought about Eric for too long, I plastered on as near a genuine smile as I could and opened the door.
“About time,” Amelia huffed. She was bundled up for the cold in a smart black pea-coat and a vivid turquoise scarf which complemented the sparkle of excitement in her eyes nicely.
“Sorry. Couldn’t find my gloves,” I said as I shut the door.
Without any further preamble, she began to chatter about our plans for the day.
Her plans, I should say. This was Amelia’s trip really: her father had written her a blank cheque and practically begged her to stay away from Louisiana and ‘those people’ in her coven for a solid month. I came home one night to travel brochures all over the kitchen table and Amelia’s hopeful face. She didn’t want to travel alone.
And, as I’d just endured yet another week of too many crappy double shifts at Merlotte’s, and too many disagreements with Eric over how to handle the latest crap from Victor Madden, it hadn’t taken much to persuade me to tag along.
So far we’d seen Paris and Rome, and before we headed to London we were spending a long weekend in Cologne, to see the famous Christmas markets. Not that I’d heard of them, but Amelia sure had. She was talking nineteen to the dozen as we left the hotel. I made all the right noises and nodded in all the right places, and if my heart wasn’t quite in it, she was kind enough to pretend she hadn’t noticed.
Just like she’d pretended not to notice how quiet I went at the Colosseum, when our tour-guide spoke at length about Christians and lions and gladiators and all I could picture was Eric’s maker, in a toga, sitting on one of the stone seats and revelling in the cruel brutality.
Just like she’d pretended not to notice me brushing away a tear or two when we took a trip up the Eiffel Tower and all I could see, despite the beauty of Paris at night spread before me, was the umpteenth couple kissing against the twinkling backdrop, and my arms and heart ached for Eric.
With every night that went by without him, my heart had chilled a little more until it sat heavy as a stone in my chest. It was getting hard to pretend I was anything other than miserable, but Amelia was a good friend and I didn’t want to ruin her trip. Or seem ungrateful: I’d seen some amazing places and sights I never would have without her.
I slipped my arm through hers and forced seasonal cheer into my voice. “Christmas markets here we come.”
It was a gorgeous winter’s day, cool and crisp, with a clear, ice-blue sky. The largest market was nestled at the foot of the tallest cathedral I’d ever seen, and I’d seen more cathedrals than you could shake a bishop’s crook at in the last few weeks. This one was impressive, so we took a quick tour. I oohed and aahed at the beautiful stained-glass windows, and groaned and moaned at the spiral staircase Amelia insisted we climb. Five hundred and nine dizzying steps later, a spectacular view over Cologne and the Rhine took the last of my breath.
On the way down, I tried not to wish someone who could fly was with me to save my aching legs.
The market itself was lovely, with neat rows of red wooden stalls that sold beautiful ornaments and gifts. The air smelt of cinnamon and spices, and the food stalls were amazing. I ate enough fried potatoes and bratwurst to satisfy a Southern gal’s hankering for some down-home cooking. Not to mention the Gluhwein that Amelia said I just had to try. Spiced, dark and warming, it came in cutesy commemorative mugs that you could pay extra to keep. Amelia thought that was just a great idea, especially after she drank a third mug of the stuff. Between the wine and the bite in the air, her cheeks were rosy by midday. I couldn’t help smirking every time I saw them.
As the sky began to cloud, we hit another market. This one specialised in hand-crafted goods and we entered through an archway decorated with wooden gnomes. Heinzelmännchen, house gnomes who did the chores while you weren’t looking, Amelia explained.
Shame they weren’t real. I could sure use one of those to take back home.
The little bearded statues were all over: on top of stalls, peaking over garlands, tucked amongst the wares. I spotted traditional garden gnomes wearing red-and-white Santa hats, gnomes carrying candles, gnomes wearing glasses, gnomes working wood, gnomes baking cakes, and family groups with grandmothers in rocking chairs and baby gnomes in cradles.
Even a punk one with a pink beard.
The fairy-lights on the stalls began to glow against the darkening sky, bringing a memory of Gran, hands on hips, telling a teenage Jason exactly how to hang a string of lights over the porch. Amelia stopped to look at some hand-blown glass baubles. The woman behind the counter sold crystals too, and they got into an involved discussion about the finer points of where to position amethyst to promote meditation.
Uninterested, I drifted to the next stall where I admired the hand-painted mugs and tankards, wondering idly if Jason would like one. Two pink-cheeked kids in green woollen hats barrelled past me, chattering loudly in German and pointing excitedly at the roof of a stall opposite. I looked over. They were making a game out of spotting the gnomes. Smiling to myself, I turned back to the tankards and my eyes fell on a gnome hidden amongst them. Barely six inches tall, it had a long nose, a grey beard and a blue jacket.
And it winked at me.
I was sure it did, but when I squinted at it suspiciously, I felt like an idiot. It was just another wooden statue, albeit a well-carved one. It must have been a trick of the light. Still, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to check its—
Amelia tugged on my arm. “Sookie, there’s a night market. It sounds wonderful. We just have to go see it.”
“What?” I said, turning round to face her. “I thought we were staying at this one. I want to see it lit up.”
“Please, Sookie. It’s not far.” She gave me the puppy dog eyes. “If it’s terrible, we can come back here.”
It was her trip. I sighed. “Fine, fine. We’ll go.”
She ushered me out of the market, round a corner, and along a quiet street of tall houses, painted pink, and blue, and cream. I snapped a few pictures, they were so pretty, but it was probably too dark to get a good shot. A laughing couple passed us, going the other way, back towards the market we just left. We were heading away from the crowds. And the lights.
“How come everyone else is going that way if this night market is so great,” I grumbled, but Amelia wasn’t listening.
She’d stopped to consult a scrap of paper. “Almost there,” she murmured to herself.
“Who gave you directions?”
“Oh,” she said airily, setting off again. “The witch with the crystals.”
Witch? I bit back a groan.
That explained her eagerness. If her father thought a trip to Europe was gonna cure Amelia of her craft, he was sadly mistaken. Louisiana wasn’t the only place with covens, and Amelia had spoken to more witches in the last few weeks than she had in the last year. With me along for the ride too, and interacting with witches didn’t always go smoothly. The trouble we got into in Rome…
So I wasn’t as thrilled as Amelia was about a market frequented by witches. But I hurried after her as she marched further along the street, my footsteps loud on the cobbles.
“Ah-ha!” she cried triumphantly, pointing at an alley sandwiched between a blue house and one painted, from what I could make out in the twilight, a pale terracotta.
The alley was unlit. An elaborate ironwork arch marked its dark entrance and a wilting bunch of greenery hung at its apex. Holy, ivy, maybe some mistletoe. It was hard to tell from the limp leaves and the patch of fallen berries squished on the ground beneath it.
“Are you sure this is it?” I asked dubiously, but Amelia was already moving and my words fell on her retreating back. Muttering under my breath about impulsive witches, I followed her.
Light. That was the first thing I noticed after I passed under the arch.
Light that hadn’t been there a second ago, reflecting off damp cobbles and the bricks of the alley walls, edging them with gold. More light, warm and yellow, split around a corner up ahead, a corner that I was sure hadn’t been there a second earlier. One moment there had only been the sound of our footsteps; now there was the low hum of distant voices, the quiet bustle of a busy street and the faint strains of music.
I stopped dead, suck in air sharply.
Amelia glanced over her shoulder and grinned. “Neat, huh?”
Neat was not what I’d called it. Passing through strange archways that made things shift and change could only mean one thing: magic. Or a portal, like the one to Fairy in the woods back home. That was a terrifying idea; no way was I wanting to take any trips of that kind.
My breath held, I looked back behind me. The street was still there, but it was blurred, as if a thick layer of wavering glass hung from the arch, a curtain between me and the real world. A group of tourists passed the alley and their laughter was muffled and distorted, as if I were underwater.
“Are we still in Cologne?” I demanded. Because we sure weren’t in Kansas.
“Yes,” Amelia said confidently. “It’s just a concealment spell. I think.”
“You think?” I said sharply. I was ready to give her a piece of my mind on the wisdom of trusting strange witches and their directions, but a head poked around the corner, low down and silhouetted against the light.
“Are ye wanting the night market or not?” called a voice.
Amelia about leaped into next week, a hand clutching at her chest as she turned to see who’d spoken. Ha! She was just as nervous as I was, the big faker.
The creature that stepped into view was something out of a fairy tale. Grey-bearded and unnaturally short, he — at least I assumed it was a he from the beard — held up a lantern and looked us over with quick, dark eyes that glittered in its light. A long nose cast shadows over his gnarled brown face, and he was dressed in boots, buckskin pants, a bright blue coat and a red pointed hat with a bell.
He winked at me and I gasped. It was the gnome from the tankard stall, I was sure of it. Only now he was three feet tall.
“In or out, ladies?” he said gruffly. “Make up thy minds, quick now.”
His mind, unfortunately, was unreadable, darting and quicksilver like a shoal of fish. Amelia and I looked at each other and had an entirely non-verbal conversation that went something like: Are you sure this is a good idea? Will we be safe? Yes, yes! It will be amazing. We can’t possibly miss it.
“In,” I said reluctantly, wondering if I should cross my fingers behind my back for luck, or if the gnome might consider that rude.
“Ye must take the oath,” he said. He put the lantern down and rooted in his coat pocket, his bushy grey eyebrows drawn down in fierce concentration.
Amelia, as curious as I was, asked, “There’s an oath?”
I held back an eye roll. Guess her witch pal hadn’t mentioned that.
“Aye, a binding one,” he answered. “Not to commit any violence. Ah, here it is.” He pulled a handful of leaves and twigs out of his pocket.
“Everyone has to do it?” I wanted to make sure of that, because it would make me feel a little safer.
He nodded solemnly.
So I found myself removing my gloves, wiping my eyes with a bunch of leaves and swearing in unison with Amelia: “By oak, and ash, and thorn, no blood shall I spill on these cobbles ere the dawn.”
As soon as our words were spoken the air filled with the scent of wood-smoke and pine. Something tightened around my wrist — a bracelet, roughly plaited from bark and twigs.
“There,” said the gnome, in a satisfied tone. “Attack anyone and thou willst wake up in a ditch on t’other side of the Rhine, with a sore head and no notion of where thou hast been.”
“Is there anything else that would get us into trouble?” Amelia asked politely. I really don’t want to upset anyone with that kind of power.
“Mischief of all other kinds is encouraged,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “’Tis practically the season for it.”
“It is?” I said. “I thought that was Halloween.”
He rocked on his heels, mouth wide and gurgling like a blocked drain. It took me a second to work out he was laughing.
“Excuse my friend,” said Amelia, looking embarrassed. “She’s, uh, Christian.”
“Oh, beg pardon. We don’t get many of them,” he said, looking me over with friendly interest. He stepped aside and gestured us on. “That way, ladies. Just keeping going.”
Round the corner boughs of spruce and pine hung every few feet, and the alley was filled with their crisp, clean scent. There was a lantern at the other end, marking another corner, and the noise grew louder. I could pick out voices, laughter, singing, and the sound of bells.
“I thought this was a Christmas market,” I said, once we’d gotten a little further from the gnome.
“Oh, no,” Amelia said blithely. “It’s for the winter solstice. And Yule, of course.”
“Of course,” I echoed sarcastically. “What was all that about mischief?”
“Oh, tricks and pranks are an old solstice tradition. Goes back to the Roman feast of Saturnalia. Master and slaves switching places, reversal of the usual order, a commoner crowned king for the day. That kind of thing.”
“Never heard of it,” I said, not sure I wanted to get caught up in that.
“You know, I bet he was using a translation charm,” she said thoughtfully. “Did you notice how old-fashioned he sounded?”
I glanced back. The gnome waved cheerfully, and I gave him a small, tentative wave back. “He wasn’t English? He sure sounded it.”
“I doubt it. German, probably. It’s hard to tell with gnomes,” she said, trying to sound wise.
“Like you’d know.” I knew for a fact that it was the first gnome she’d ever met; her thoughts had betrayed her.
She shrugged and sped up a little, smiling at me. “This is so exciting. There’s nothing like it back home.”
Her grin was infectious and I matched her pace. It was a little exciting and so far it didn’t seem dangerous. So far.
We came out into a cobbled square surrounded by tall, narrow houses with painted fronts and dark wooden beams. A riot of colour and sound and smell assaulted me, and I blinked rapidly against the light of many flickering candles and lanterns. There were braziers piled high with red embers too, and my mouth watered at the smell of roasting nuts.
The square was crammed with a multitude of stalls of all sorts: wooden ones, big and small, painted and plain; vivid silk pavilions lit from within like giant coloured lanterns; and striped canvas tents that looked like they’d escaped from a circus. There was just as much variety in the folks wandering between them. Shifters, witches, demons, and other supes I couldn’t recognise from their mental signatures, wearing all kinds of clothes and speaking all kinds of languages.
A troupe of acrobats tumbled past, calling out to each other and laughing merrily. None of them reached higher than my hip. A man in a red and green Harlequin costume, impossibly thin and tall, went by a minute later, the bells on his hat jangling. He was singing in French and juggling half a dozen delicate glass balls that shone softly, changing from red to green as they rose and fell hypnotically.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s something you don’t see every day.”
“No, you sure don’t,” Amelia said breathily. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
I had to admit, it sort of was.
I leaned over a tray of necklaces, admiring delicate carved pendants that gleamed in the soft candlelight.
“Protection charms,” Amelia murmured at my elbow, impressed.
“Very useful, Miss,” said the proprietor from the other side of the waist-high table that served as a counter. “A thoughtful solstice gift for those dear to your heart.”
I bit my lip. They were lovely, but not exactly Eric’s style. What did you buy for a thousand year old vampire?
The small tented stall was quiet, as if its soft canvas walls had muffled the sounds from the market more than they should, and when the proprietor shifted slightly his shoes clacked on the floor. I got a crazy notion he was wearing clogs.
Probably not, I thought, stifling a giggle and bending over the necklaces again. He was snappy dresser and clogs wouldn’t go with his clothes.
His velvet jacket and bowler hat were both deep plum, and he had a perfectly tied lilac silk cravat. A matching lilac handkerchief peeked out of his breast pocket. He was tanned, with black, tightly-curled hair and a neat, tidy beard. And although he looked human, his mind was not. His thoughts were opaque, and a little swirly. Maybe he was some rare kind of shifter I hadn’t met before, but I reckoned it would be rude to ask him.
One thing he was, though, was a determined salesman. He pointed to the necklaces with a well-manicured nail. “This one protects against illness; this one, unlucky investments; and this one, broken hearts.”
I sighed softly. Only one of those would be any use to Eric, and I doubted a gift that implied he needed magic to make a profit would go over well.
Sensing my indecision, the proprietor suggested helpfully, “Maybe something smaller, Miss. What about these? Here, have a closer look.” He picked up a tray of rings and stepped around the table with them.
“Oh no, thank you,” I stammered, desperately trying not to stare at his lower half. He wasn’t wearing any pants, but that wasn’t all. His feet were cloven-hooved, which explained the clacking, and his legs were covered in thick curly fur. And quite naked otherwise.
I didn’t know where to look. But definitely not down. No sirree. Eyes up.
Amelia, who had been examining a tray of round, polished stones the size of eggs, saw my face and came to my rescue by asking him: “Do these warding stones have to be placed at the cardinal points?”
“Oh yes,” he said eagerly, scenting a sale and bustling back around the table. His jacket had tails at the back, for which I was extremely grateful. “Which stones take your fancy, madam witch?”
“Um, these green ones.” Amelia widened her eyes at me. He’s a faun! Like Mr Tumnus from Narnia.
“The serpentine. What an excellent choice!”
Money changed hands, and after the things I’d seen in the last hour, it somehow wasn’t at all shocking that a faun was quite happy to be paid in Euros. He deftly wrapped and boxed Amelia’s purchase, thanking her politely. She tucked it safely away in the large tote bag she’d been carrying all day, which never seemed to get full no matter how many souvenirs she bought.
An attractive couple came in, ducking under the open tent flap. Both were tall, the man dark and the woman fair, and they wore simple but elegant clothes. I knew straight away they were fairies, from their minds and the luminescence of their skin, that attractive radiance fairies had about them.
The male went straight to the counter, saying something in a language I couldn’t understand. His voice was like liquid honey. The faun began to bow and scrape obsequiously. The woman, however, paused at the entrance and looked me over twice, sure to do so down the whole length of her nose before she swept haughtily past us.
“Damn fairies, always so stuck-up,”Amelia muttered, shaking her head as we exited the tent. “Sorry. They’re probably distant cousins of yours or something.”
“Nothing to do with me,” I said, shrugging. “I’m a Stackhouse through and through.”
Not just a Stackhouse, Amelia thought, but before I could disagree, the ground shook under my feet.
And then again. And again. Each tremor was accompanied by a dull thud. Amelia, who had craned her neck to look over my shoulder, gulped and her eyes widened.
“Oh my,” she gasped. That has to be a troll. What the hell else could it be?
I whipped around and stared at the truly fearsome-looking beast bearing down on us. About eight feet tall, it filled the space between stalls, shoulders the width of a car, bulging biceps the width of … well, the width of the logs balanced on its shoulder, actually. Its skin was grey-green and all it wore was a very large, very dirty pair of Lederhosen. A bulbous nose and a flat, broad face were overhung by a thick-boned forehead and bushy eyebrows that cast its eyes deep into shadow. It was its teeth that held my attention though, or rather the two blunt, yellowing tusks that curved wickedly up out of its mouth. Feet the size of small missiles slapped heavily on the cobblestones, and its ponderous, swinging steps brought it towards us with all the unstoppable momentum of a tank.
I stepped smartly backwards and dragged Amelia, who was still catching flies, out the way. The canvas of the faun’s tent pressed against my back and a hot wash of fetid breath that smelt of damp and mould hit me as the troll passed by, its bulk blocking out the clouded night sky.
“You sure don’t see that every day,” I said, staring after the retreating creature. Cries of annoyance and indignation rose up in its wake, but the troll, if that’s what it was, paid them absolutely no mind.
“Wonder where he’s going with those logs?” Amelia asked, her eyes round and fixed in the direction it had gone.
Feeling generous I offered, “We could go see.”
It wasn’t difficult to follow the troll, mainly because folks came out of the booths and stalls to yell at it, hands on hips, or to stare after it, mouths gaping. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one taken aback. Trolls must be a rare sight even for supes.
The trail led to a corner of the market that smelt of hot metal and fire. Iron rang against iron and water hissed as we passed blacksmiths bent over anvils or pumping bellows that sent showers of sparks up into the dark. The troll ducked its head and entered a large, open-fronted wooden workshop.
Amelia and I stopped in front of it. One side of the place was lined with shelves filled with the most beautifully carved candles, and there were dipped candles of every hue hanging from the rafters drying. Wooden vats sat at the back of the workshop, their rims spattered thickly with wax of all colours. A little old woman was bent over one, stirring the contents, but she abandoned her task to greet the troll.
“Hroth, you big oaf. What took ‘ee?” she called in a friendly manner, wiping her hands on an apron speckled with a rainbow of wax drops as she came forwards.
Her face was wizened and flushed from her work, and wisps of her white hair were escaping from a pretty green head scarf embroidered with red roses. She poked and prodded the troll towards a workbench scattered with wood chips and shavings.
The troll made a series of grunting, rumbling sounds in reply and, more carefully than I expected considering his size, put the logs he was carrying down on the bench, near some chisels and a hatchet.
Turning to the back, the old woman called loudly, “Hans! Hans! Thy logs be ‘ere!”
“Ya, ya! No need to shout, Frau Talwynn.” A pale, dark-haired man came out, a battered tankard in his hand. He drained it and wiped the ring of blood from his mouth.
I stiffened and exchanged a wary glance with Amelia, but she only shrugged as if to say what did I expect. Hans the vampire set his tankard down and snagged a leather apron covered in nicks and scrapes off of a hook, absently licking a few remaining drops of blood from his lips as he tied it on.
Whistling to himself, he began inspecting the logs, picking them up and turning them over.
Amelia nudged me and nodded at the shelf behind him. It held what I guessed were examples of his work: carved logs with ivy and holly coiling round them. Logs with faces, human or other, carved to look like they were bursting out of the bark. Logs carved with figures of fauns, satyrs, nymphs, and other creatures I didn’t recognise.
“Dab hand with the axe, our Hans,” said Talwynn. Seeing our interest, the old woman asked, “Will ‘ee be wanting a Jul log, my lovelies?
“I’d love one,” Amelia said wistfully, “but I don’t think we can get it back home.”
She was probably right. The logs were a little large to fit in a suitcase.
“Oh, don’t worry ’bout that,” Talwynn said cheerfully. “We’ve got ways of getting it to ‘ee.”
“Nice bit of ash, this one,” said Hans, hefting a log one-handed. He swept the bench clear of debris, looked up and smiled at me. “Just the right wood for one of the fair folk.”
Amelia turned big, pleading eyes on me. “Can we, Sook? Please? I’ll pay for it.”
How could I say no?
It was something to see: Hans picked up the hatchet and, at vampire speed, began a flurry of hacking and then chiselling, chips and curls of wood falling from the log like leaves from a tree. The face Amelia had chosen seemed to melt out of the wood under his skilful hands.
Old Father Time. Who looked a lot like Santa to me.
While Hans carved, Talwynn explained the tradition. “Yule be a celebration of light at the darkest time, the depths of mid-winter. The dying of the old year, the wheel turning, and the birth of the new. In Cornwall, where I be from, we chalk a man on the log to represent the old year and burn it. And the sun rises again, like a phoenix from the ashes.”
Hans chuckled, his eyes on the blur of his hands. “Fitting work for a man who rose from the dead, Talwynn says.”
“I do,” said Talwynn, nodding and chuckling. “Just don’t be getting any splinters to the chest, Hans.”
Hans stopped and laughed, head back and belly shaking. “I would be a laughing stock, no? Only an idiot could do such a thing.”
“So, um, what do we do with it?” I asked Talwynn.
“’Ee burn it, of course. Once it be lit, it must burn to ash in the hearth without going out. That will bring ‘ee luck all the year. Some folk like to sit round it while it burns and tell ghost stories.” She waved at the candles dripping from the ceiling. “Some light wishing-candles from it instead. One for everyone in the house, youngest to eldest, each making a secret wish for the new year. All must stay silent until the last candle is lit, and no other light must be raised in the house that night. Mayhap the wish comes true if ‘ee do it right.” With a mercenary glint in her eyes, she added, “There’s a discount if ‘ee be buying more than three candles.”
Amelia gasped and turned to me. “Can we, Sook?”
“Sure,” I said, laughing. “I was going to get some anyway. They’re just lovely, Talwynn.”
“Thank ‘ee kindly,” she said, smiling with pleasure at the compliment. “Tis not often one of the fair folk is so well-mannered.”
Hans sat back and dusted off his hands.
“Oh, it’s just perfect,” Amelia said gleefully, admiring the bearded face staring out of the log.
“Would you like it scented?” Hans asked, reaching for a rack of bottles filled with amber and golden liquids. “Enchanted oils. They release fragrance as it burns.”
Amelia settled on apple-cinnamon and while Hans applied oil to the log, I went with Talwynn to pick out candles. Four, one for Amelia, one for me, one for Jason, and one for a certain someone I was hoping would want to celebrate with me when I got home. As Talwynn wrapped them carefully, I stared into space and sighed. Eric hadn’t been too pleased about my little vacation.
“Europe is over-rated,” he said dismissively, as if the idea was ridiculous.
“Is it? I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been. But I’d like to, and I’m going.”
“Here is better. Safer.”
“I don’t know how you can say that, after the month I’ve had.” I’d been attacked, bruised and chased by yet another murderer. Just a typical month for a human who interacted with vampires, werewolves and demons on a regular basis.
“You should stay here,” he insisted, folding his arms.
As if insisting had ever worked on me. “Oh, really. Who died and made you the boss of me?”
“I did,” he said, his mouth twitching a little. Then the amusement faded from his eyes and his face stilled. “I cannot guarantee your safety there.”
I snorted. “I’ve got news for you, buster. You can’t guarantee my safety here.”
“Because you will not listen to reason,” he said forcefully. “If you moved to Shreveport—”
“Cheese and rice, Eric! Give it a rest already!” We had been having that argument for weeks and I was heartily sick of it. “I am taking a vacation. And no-one, not you, not Victor, not Felipe, and not any other damn king or queen who decides to interfere in my life on a whim, is gonna stop me!”
I stomped out of his office in a snit, slamming the door for good measure.
I hadn’t spoken to him civilly since. Oh, he’d made several increasingly high-handed attempts to change my mind, but those all ended in shouting matches. I was so furious after the last one, during which he had the nerve to order me not to leave Louisiana, I hadn’t even said goodbye. Instead, I left a terse message saying I didn’t want to see or speak to him until I got back, and when I did, I’d call him.
Oh, Pam had phoned Amelia a few times while we were here, and she’d asked to speak to me in a transparent ploy to check on me for her Maker. But I had no idea how Eric was, because I hadn’t asked Pam a thing about him on principle.
All my stubbornness was doing by this point was making me miserable, but I was an old hand at cutting my nose off to spite my face where Eric was concerned.
I jumped when Talwynn touched my arm. She asked, “’Ee with us, my lovely?”
“Oh, sorry,” I said, smiling sheepishly.
“Away with the fairies,” she said, chuckling at her joke. Then she gave me a suddenly shrewd look and said kindly, “Thinking of someone special, I shouldn’t wonder. Vampires are tricky creatures to buy for.”
I blinked at her. How did she know he was a vampire?
She pointed off to the left. “There’s a stall that way. Pink tent, can’t miss it. Try there. And don’t ‘ee miss the Cornish Guise dancers later. My nephew is one of them.”
The sign on the pink tent said Athena’s Emporium. Stepping inside was like entering an Aladdin’s cave of lingerie. They had everything from lace and silk to leather and latex.
Athena herself, a large, full-bellied woman in a striking blue dress, welcomed us warmly. Her dress was cut a little low, and worn a little tight, but it suited her. She had straight, almost blue-black hair, half-moon glasses and, from the white noise of her mind, demon heritage. Her teeth were certainly pointed and her tongue may have been forked. I didn’t look close enough to be sure.
“I cater to all shapes and sizes,” she boasted. Wiggling her thick dark eyebrows suggestively she added, “And all tastes.”
I thought for one awful moment that she would ask what our tastes were, but instead she invited us to browse and left us in peace. Perching herself on a high stool facing the entrance, she picked up a paperback. A romance, from the lurid picture on the cover.
Ugh. That awkward photo-shoot with Claude. I really didn’t need to be reminded of that.
But traipsing around the Emporium with Amelia turned out to be more awkward than taking racy photos with a gay fairy cousin. After she’d dragged me around the whole place, my cheeks matched the colour of the tent.
Athena didn’t just sell lingerie.
There was a bookcase of interspecies sex manuals. Yes, really. Amelia insisted on flicking through some and the illustrations left me wishing for a curse like Hallow’s to wipe my mind.
There were glass-fronted cabinets full of odd shaped bottles. The first was massage oils, nothing blush-inducing there. The next was species-specific perfumes, some so potent they came with dire warnings about inciting riots. Rioting vampires sounded positively dangerous to my health, so that was out.
Another held vials of love potions, only short-acting ones Amelia assured me. Another held aphrodisiacs and lust potions. The last, supe variations on Viagra. Which was no use to me, Eric didn’t need that kind of assistance in the slightest.
But it was the alcove of bedroom equipment that really heated my cheeks. I wasn’t completely naive, no telepath who grew up reading adult minds could be. I knew what folks did with handcuffs and whips. Each to their own, live and let live, and all, I just didn’t see the need to know any more about it than I had to. And I definitely didn’t want to hear Amelia’s curious thoughts about the more unusual things on the shelves and hanging from the canvas roof.
I couldn’t fathom a purpose for some of them, and I didn’t much want to. A few looked like implements of torture.
Amelia had no trouble filling a basket with goodies for her and Bob — no kitty collars with bells on though, I teased her about that — but I was still empty-handed. Leaving her picking out a perfume, I went hunting on my own, trying to look sophisticated, or at the very least like I knew what I was doing. Hovering awkwardly beside some leather corsets that I’d passed three times, I wondered if Eric would like them or of he would hate the thought of them as much as I did.
My face must’ve said it all, because the owner took pity on me and came over to help. “Is it someone special you’re buying for?” she asked.
“Um, my boyfriend,” I mumbled, as if I was fourteen years old and speaking to a maiden aunt.
“What is he, dear?”
“He’s a vamp,” Amelia said from behind my shoulder.
Just great. A witness to my humiliation. A witness with a big mouth.
“And an old one I’ll wager, with her lineage,” the demon owner said. She removed her glasses and chewed on the end of them thoughtfully. “Hmm. Let me think. Come away from those corsets, dear. Anything that makes you look that uncomfortable is not what you want to wear for a seduction. For that, you need to ooze confidence.”
Flushing even deeper, I followed her meekly past the cabinets.
She paused by one, tapping the glass with her nails. “No, not perfume. Your scent is probably more alluring to a vampire than anything I’ve got. Hmm.” She walked over to a chest of shallow, wide drawers and opened one to reveal a display case of pretty pastel camisoles and underwear sets. “Are these are more your taste?”
“Yes,” I sighed, disappointed.
“You were hoping to surprise him with something more risqué than your usual.” I nodded, grateful she understood, and she smiled, which was less encouraging than it might have been given the number and sharpness of her teeth. She tapped the glass with a very long, curved fingernail. “These are a new line, Vanishing Vanities. Just wish them gone, and poof! They’re on the floor. That might give your vampire a thrill.”
“Oh, I see.” Eric was all for getting naked, so it wasn’t a terrible idea. “And it would save me a fortune…”
“Bit of a bodice-ripper, is he?” she said, and clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Males! They have no idea how difficult it is to find a well-fitting corset. They have it far too easy with their underwear.”
That gave me an idea. “Do you have something similar for guys?”
“Guys?” She frowned. “Yes, I do.”
“And can anyone vanish them, or is it just the wearer?”
“Well, my customers are mostly female, so I usually tune them to the buyer but I can—”
“Oh, the buyer will be just fine.” That fit the plan I was hatching. I couldn’t wait to see his face.
“Oh, I see! You want them tuned to you. What an excellent idea!” Chuckling, she opened a drawer of men’s things. “What takes your fancy?”
“Those, definitely.” I tapped the glass. Tiny red briefs; I couldn’t hide my smile. “And those too.” Black silk boxers, like the ones he wore in Jackson.
“Good choices. What size is he?”
“Oh, he’s a big guy,” Amelia said behind me; Amelia who I’d forgotten all about. “Over six foot. Positively huge.”
I turned round a little quicker than she expected and caught her with her hands held out, spaced just so. “Amelia Broadway! You quit that right now.” I hissed, slapping her arm. She collapsed into giggles, but I was plain mortified.
“You’re a lucky woman,” the demon said, unabashed. She opened a storage drawer and rifled through the contents. “Here we go. Large, in the red and the black.” She took them to the register and got out a metal dish and a candle. “Now I just need some of your hair to tune the enchantment to you.”
Five minutes later and a hank of hair lighter, I had a beautifully wrapped pink parcel and a gift I just knew Eric would get a kick out of. If he’d forgiven me for taking off when I got home in a week’s time.
I sighed as we left the Emporium. Another week seemed like forever.
A piercing squeal tore the air, followed by a cacophony of shouting, and it was Amelia’s turn to pull me out of the way as an enormous black boar charged between the stalls. It tore past us, grunting and bucking, its tail flapping madly. Folk scattered out of its way, dropping packages and cursing.
In hot pursuit, pounding full-tilt after it, came three vertically-challenged gentlemen in bloody aprons. Of the goblin persuasion, if their similarity to Mr Hob was anything to go by. One of them waved a meat cleaver over his head and yelled something guttural and angry. The boar shook its head from side to side, scattering trails of saliva from its mouth, and threw itself abruptly sideways, its feet skittering on the cobbles. Squeezing between two stalls, it disappeared. The trio stormed after it, shouting and waving their arms.
“What the hell was that about?” I asked no-one in particular.
Amelia blinked rapidly. “I have no idea.”
A matronly woman with a large basket on her arm butted in. “Damn gnomes playing tricks,” she grumbled good-naturedly, with a loud sniff. “Do it every year. Always let a boar out. You think the butchers would learn, but they never do.”
A murmur rippled through the shoppers, coming from the same direction as the boar had. Bells jingled frantically and I had no idea what to expect this time, but the woman didn’t seem disturbed.
“Ah, here they come,” she said in a satisfied tone and put her basket down on the ground at her feet.
The crowd parted and I gasped at what emerged. Reindeer, with shining red noses, walking in a sedate line. White and red patterned blankets had been thrown over their backs, and they had riders: children, carrying leather straps sewn with bells, which they were shaking enthusiastically.
“Mama! Mama!” called a chubby blonde boy, leaning dangerously to the side to wave frantically in our direction. “Look at me!”
“I see you, Joseph,” the woman called back, waving too. “Sit up straight, son, and don’t let go!” She watched him fondly as the reindeer paraded past, picking up their hooves and dancing a little, which made the children on their backs laugh.
“Oh,” I said softly, and nudged Amelia. “The reindeer. They’re shifters.”
“Yes,” the woman agreed, picking up her basket. “From Finland. They come every year. First time here?” I nodded. “Don’t miss the dancing bears.”
“Where are they?” Amelia asked eagerly. She was as excited as the little boy.
“Just follow the reindeer,” she answered and held out a crumpled paper bag. “Here, try some giggling candy. It’s really good this year.”
“Thank you,” I said politely. We each took a piece. She wished us well for the solstice and left to collect her son.
The candy was chewy, like toffee, but it tasted of mint and lemon. We soon found out why it was called giggling candy. Amelia clapped her hand over her mouth as I felt a bubble of laughter welling in my throat. I caught her eyes, and let out a chuckle. Soon both of us were giggling uncontrollably, leaning on each other for support.
“Wow. That was some candy.” I wiped my eyes, still laughing weakly.
“Yes,” Amelia said with a hiccough. “Great way to spread seasonal cheer.”
“If only they made giggling True Blood,” I said and collapsed into another fit of giggles. The candy wasn’t to blame; I was picturing Eric guffawing away in his chair at Fangtasia. The fangbangers would be totally bewildered, and wouldn’t it just ruin his carefully crafted big bad vampire image.
I seriously wished vampires could eat candy. Pam would so prank him with it. She could always glamour the vermin afterwards.
The dancing bears were in an open space at the heart of the market, where the reindeer began their parades and which also served as a food court of sorts. Stalls here sold all kinds of meat, sausages, soups, potato fritters, foaming beer in huge tankards and Gluhwein. I even saw spiced blood. Long benches were jammed with shifters, demons and witches eating and drinking elbow-to-elbow. And talking, arguing, telling stories and jokes, laughing and bursting into song. Children ran between the benches playing chase, shrieking and laughing, and no-one seemed to mind.
The bears were a large extended family of Russian travelling shifters who, naturally, shifted into bears, and their displays added to the festive atmosphere. We watched an incredibly athletic Cossack dance, and some fire juggling and sword throwing that had the crowd gasping. Between performances, a fantastic steam organ, painted and gilded like an old-fashioned carousel, provided waltz music and they offered, for a small fee, the chance to dance with one of them in bear form.
I found myself taking a spin with a huge black male, because as Amelia said, how many people could say they’d done that? His teeth and claws were a little intimidating, but I held onto his arms and the fur there was soft and woolly. His breath, which smelt strongly of smoked fish, was off-putting, but he was certainly light on his feet and he didn’t stand on my toes once.
And he was wearing pants, which was a blessing. All in all, I loved it.
It was something else to be in the company of supes and not have to worry about more than a bear standing on my toes. Maybe, just maybe, the supernatural world didn’t have to be hazardous to my health all the damn time. Maybe it could even, on occasions like this, live up to the wonder and excitement I’d hoped for when vampires came out of the coffin.
Amelia had taken a turn with one of the mama bears, who all wore brightly coloured patterned skirts, and she was absolutely thrilled by the experience, her eyes practically sparkling when she rejoined me.
“That was amazing!” she said, as she slipped her arm through mine. “I’m so glad we came.”
“Me too,” I said, laughing. My cheeks ached from smiling so much and I was having a wonderful time.
The only thing that could improve my evening was sharing it with Eric. Amelia was a great friend and all, but I was missing my honey.
Next we tracked down a stall that sold giggling candy. Sadly they didn’t have a version for vampires, but they had talking gingerbread men and enchanted sugar cookies in every flavour under the sun. Roast beef, goulash, treacle tart, plum pudding … you name, they had it. Beer flavoured cookies: I just had to get some of those for Jason as a gag gift. Amelia bought about six different flavours for Bob, and even a few for her father, so she was really feeling the holiday spirit.
While Amelia was paying for her sugary treats, I felt a light touch on the back of my neck and turned around, thinking someone had bumped against me in the throng. But no-one was there.
It happened again, a definite tug on my scarf this time, and I reached a hand back to feel around, wondering if the wool had caught on my jacket or something. Still nothing.
Another two tugs came in quick succession. As I cussed in annoyance, my scarf was whipped briskly off my neck, the fringed ends flying up and past my eyes in a blur. Whirling round to confront the thief, I gasped at the sight that met my eyes.
My scarf bobbed in the air, held aloft by tiny winged creatures that glowed like fireflies. They were laughing, their voices high and silvery, like bells tinkling. All around me people were losing hats and scarves and hair ribbons, gasping and yelling in surprise and then laughing in delight as the fluttering, shining creatures made off with them.
Amelia came up behind me and squealed, “Oh, look! A tree!”
The bears and the steam organ were gone. A swarm of brawny Weres and one troll were manoeuvring a huge spruce into position, the Weres hauling on ropes, and the troll bracing his broad back against the trunk, pushing with brute strength. With shouts, and creaking, and a slow, shifting sway, the spruce tree rose upright and then settled into place with a thud, branches shivering.
“Is that Hroth?” Amelia asked, squinting.
“Well, it’s definitely a troll, but I don’t know if it’s Hroth,” I said. Surely one troll looked much like another? “Oh! Look!”
The literally light-fingered thieves who’d stolen my scarf, and all those other things, had fluttering higher and were converging on the tree, where they landed, adorning it with their stolen goods and their own shiny bodies until it twinkled all over.
“Ooh. I get it,” Amelia said, turning to me wide-eyed. “Actual fairy lights.”
A Were standing nearby overheard her and laughed loudly. “Don’t let the fae hear you say that,” he said, still chortling. He had dark hair and brown, smiling eyes.
Amelia sniffed. “I suppose they’re above decorating trees.”
“Oh, definitely,” he said, winking at her. “Those little ladies are sprites. Rascally things they are, but no harm to ’em.”
“Sprite lights,” I said, grinning. “Sure easier to put those up than the regular ones.”
When we were teenagers, Jason’s annual wrestling contest with our lights typically ended with him admitting defeat and calling me in to untangle them. The last few years I’d put them up by myself, but I was hoping I might have assistance from someone else this year.
Oh, Lord. I’d been an idiot. I should call him. Tomorrow. Or better yet, I’d leave a message tonight.
“What about you?” the Were said, nodding at Amelia and smiling warmly. “No trouble for a witch like you to decorate a tree, I bet.”
Amelia cocked an eyebrow at him, and that I’m-plotting-a-new-spell look that heralded trouble came over her face.
“Oh, no,” I said, laughing. “After what happened with Bob I don’t think I trust you with my Christmas tree.”
“Bob?” said the Were, leaning closer and smiling more flirtatiously. “Did this Bob do something to upset you? He shouldn’t have, a pretty witch like you.”
“Oh, er …” Amelia was saved by a commotion to our right. A swell of drumming, singing and catcalls announced the arrival of a motley procession.
The Were turned to look. “Oh, good. The Guise dancers.”
The dancers were all masked or disguised, but that was the only thing they had in common. Their costumes were truly amazing. Once I’d registered the first few were shifters, I stopped reading minds and gaped at the spectacle.
Some wore men’s evening dress, top-hats and tails, with their faces painted black and white to match. Some of those carried accordions and played a lively jig. Some were covered head to toe in a thick layer of brightly-coloured ribbons and rags that shook and rustled as they moved. Some had elaborate green masks and costumes woven so thickly with foliage they looked like walking trees. Some, beating drums, wore rough smocks and wicker animal masks, shaped like the heads of bulls, asses, rabbits and deer.
Not all of them were wicker either: at least one shifter went past us with a real horse head. He was wearing red velvet mayor’s robes, with a leather horse’s collar covered in brasses as a chain of office.
“All welcome the Lord of Misrule,” cried a chorus of voices.
Necks craned and arms pointed. At the back, just coming into view, a throne rocked and swayed above the precession, carried aloft on the shoulders of four brawny men. As it got closer, I saw the bearers wore head-to-toe black, the rims of their bowler hats and the front of their shirts festooned with red ribbons, sprigs of holly and other decorations. The wooden throne, darkened with age, was intricately carved, and faces both furred and human peeked out between the leaves of curling vines.
In the throne lounged the Lord himself, one leather-booted calf thrown over the wooden arm, and one gloved hand resting on a gnarled staff topped with a bejewelled animal skull and held carelessly across his lap like a royal sceptre. He had on a long sweeping patchwork cloak that glittered with iridescent peacock feathers, mirror-fragments and beads. The cloak was thrown open, revealing leather pants and a silk shirt, both a deep, rich brown. His mask was full: painted green and gilded, the carved wooden face was alien, combining vaguely human features with fur and leaves. Deep, shadowed holes did nothing to reveal his eyes, and a huge set of antlers sprouted from it, hung with ribbons that moved as the throne shifted with the bearer’s steps.
The procession paraded past us, making its way towards the spruce tree. A cheer rippled round and the watching crowd began to move, thickening around us.
“Come on,” said the Were, catching hold of Amelia’s elbow. “Let’s get a good spot.”
Amelia grabbed my hand, and I held tight as the press of bodies swelled forwards, fighting to keep with her. When the crowd stopped, we found ourselves near the front. The throne had been set down in pride of place at the foot of the spruce, on a small stage that seemed to have materialised out of thin air. The dancers were arranged on either side of it. Children, with rugs and cushions tucked under their arms, wriggled and wormed between our legs and then sat in a ring, on the ground at the very front, their rapt upturned faces fixed on the stage. The crowd settled and quieted.
With a lazy stretch, the Lord leaned forward and rapped his skull-topped staff sharply on the stage.
At that signal the entertainment began. The troupe started with a song and a dance, and then there was a performance. An old play, someone remarked next to us. Father Time acted as narrator, and I found myself totally absorbed in a fantastical tale of a hero, a dragon, a fool and a healer, laughing with the crowd at the fool’s antics, booing at the dragon and cheering when the healer brought the hero back from the dead.
As the players took a final bow, the older children snatched up their rugs and younger brothers and sisters, and they all melted back into the crowd. I noticed some of the dancers slipping in amongst the throng too. Wild fiddle music started up somewhere, and the crowd shifted and stirred like a living creature, the air crackling with excitement.
The Lord, who had watched proceedings with an air of consummate boredom so profound I’d completely forgotten about him, leapt to his feet and threw up his arms, lifting his staff to the dark sky.
“Let the Misrule begin!” he roared.
A shout rang out behind us. A large jowly man, red-faced and panting, lumbered flat-footed through the crowd, chased by a gang of youngsters throwing bags of coloured powder. A yellow one exploded on his shoulder, and it was hard to tell if his belly shook with amusement or anger. A woman yelped to the left of us as one of the Guise dancer snatched her up from behind. He twirled her in his arm and began to waltz with her, and her complaints morphed into laughter.
“Shit,” I muttered uneasily and met Amelia’s wide eyes. “Should we get out of here?”
“Um, maybe,” she said.
But before we could, the little sparks of mischief spread outwards, like ripples from a handful of pebbles cast into a pond. The throng heaved and boiled, rapidly breaking into mad chases, wild dances and loud carousing, until riotous chaos ruled.
Amelia squealed besides me and ducked a red powder bomb, clutching her bag to her and grabbing my arm. “Okay, let’s go,” she yelled.
Hitching up the shoulder strap of my tote so it sat more securely, I looked around for a safe path out of the madness. Spotting a space opening to our left, I dragged Amelia into it. Right into the path of a chorus line of singers, dancing and high-stepping towards us arm-in-arm.
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Amelia yelled in my ear, linking arms with the last one. I went with it, letting Amelia sweep me along with her, and hoping there would be safety in numbers. But the line broke up and, before I could get my wits together, the Were who’d spoken to us before the show snatched Amelia away, twirling and spinning her.
“Don’t worry about me,” she yelled over her shoulder as hands grabbed me from behind.
“I wasn’t,” I yelled as I was spun around, and then waltzed by a dancer in a boar’s head mask who smelt of beer and musk. Spun again and released, I fell into the waiting arms of a short, dumpy lady in top-hat and tails, whose black-and-white face contorted as she laughed and wheezed as she danced us in a drunkard’s walk to avoid other revellers. I twisted in her arms, but it was hopeless. I’d lost track of Amelia completely.
A chubby man in a red and yellow jester costume cut in while I was distracted, and carried me off with a lively jig, the bells on his hat jangling in my ears. He swung me into the arms of another dancer, my head spinning with the noise and motion.
And so I was passed through the riotous revel, embrace to embrace, until I was let go abruptly, swaying and dizzy, in a pocket of open space. An eye-watering flash of light blinded me, and I squinted against it as the world slowed its spinning. The noise of the rioting fell away.
A gilded mask. A glittering cloak, spots of reflected light playing across my eyes. The Lord of Misrule, stretching his hand towards me.
Oh shit. What the hell had I gotten into now?
Somehow I didn’t think I was allowed to refuse him. I sincerely hoped that all he wanted was a dance. Well, at least that was one thing I knew how to do well.
Swallowing, I stepped forwards and took his hand. I couldn’t make out his eyes, deep in the shadow of the mask, and that was unsettling. His grip was firm but not tight, though, and he bowed politely, careful to keep the antlers away from my face. My eyes thanked him, those tines were wickedly sharp.
With a flourish, he threw his cloak back over his shoulder and slid his arm around my waist, and we were off.
I rested my free hand on his chest, focusing on the red wool of my glove to keep my mind off what was happening, but all the potential repercussions ran through my mind in a torrent, like water roaring over a waterfall. Was this just a dance? Was it some archaic medieval rite? Was I his for the night? Because that was not happening. Even if his chest was nicely muscled.
Or was this some elaborate trick to humiliate me? Lord, I hoped not.
I concentrated on not tripping over my own feet and making a fool out of myself. He was a graceful, responsive dance partner. In other circumstances, ones I understood fully, I might have enjoyed dancing with him. His hand stroked my waist a little, almost soothingly, and I managed to quiet my fears and relaxed a little. I had no idea what dance we were doing, but it was lively and folk certainly got out of his way. Then he dipped me, my breath caught in my throat and I had to shut my eyes as a rush of longing overwhelmed me.
Oh, Eric. Where are you?
Strong arms lifted me back upright. The Lord had a fluidity to his movements and dancing with him was like a floating on a cloud. A minute later, I realised why that was: my feet were no longer in contact with the ground. I gasped sharply, and he laughed.
A deep belly laugh.
It was the first sound he’d made, and it was awful familiar. Stiffening, I peered at his eyes and gasped. He lowered us back down, keeping up a gentle swaying once my feet were on the ground.
“Eric?” I breathed, a tumult of emotions expressed in one tiny word. Hope. Amazement. Joy.
A gloved hand went to the mask and raised it slowly, inch by inch, revealing a smirk I would know in the dark, sparkling blue eyes and messy blonde hair. Swivelling at the waist, Eric tossed the mask to a waiting dancer, and the cloak followed an instant later. “Thanks for the loan, Michael.”
“Thank Auntie. See you snagged the lass, as bloody usual.” The dancer, a tall handsome Were who’d played the part of the fool in the play, slipped the costume on and left.
Eric turned to me, shaking his hair into place with a casual toss of his head. “Hello, Sookie.”
“Oh my God!” I slapped his arm, beaming up at him. “I had no idea it was you! When did you get here?”
“But you said you couldn’t get away.” One of the shouting matches had been about that. “What about Victor?”
His eyes became as hard as diamond, and his smile predatory. “Victor is no longer a problem.”
“Oh.” I swallowed a pang of guilt and looked away. We were behind the tree, alone in a quiet corner.
Victor had been a thorn in our sides ever since the takeover. If he was dead, finally dead, that made my life a whole lot simpler. And I really didn’t want to start another argument. Picking a safer topic I asked, “How did you know I would be here?”
“I have my sources.”
The Guise dancers were Cornish. And Michael had said Auntie. “Talwynn,” I said.
His eyes crinkled. “Perhaps.”
I cocked my head, and stared at him. That didn’t explain how he knew I’d come to the night market in the first place, which, given my usual avoidance of all things supernatural wasn’t something he could have predicted. The gnome who let us in, he must have been in on it too.
I didn’t appreciate being manipulated. I narrowed my eyes, about to give Eric what for.
His face went smooth and still.
And I stopped myself. Hadn’t I decided I’d been a stubborn fool? The man had followed me halfway round the world, something I’d been secretly wanting him to do. And that, if I was honest with myself, scared me shitless. It meant this was serious, this thing between us.
I took a deep breath, and asked the question I really wanted to ask. “Why did you come?”
“I missed you,” he said simply, and my breath hitched at the warmth in his eyes.
“Oh,” I said softly.
Before I could say more, he gathered me up and laid one hell of a kiss on me. It left me breathless and my heart racing, but I was pleased to see I’d given as good as I got: Eric’s fangs were down and his eyes were dark and wild. Once I’d gotten enough oxygen to my brain to do more than drown in his baby blues, I reached up and stroked his cheek. He caught my hand and tugged it between us, raising his eyebrows at my glove.
I grinned at him. “What? It’s winter. And they match my coat.”
“Yes. Red. My favourite,” he said, smirking. He tugged the glove off and put my hand back on his face, closing his eyes. “This way is better.”
I leaned against him and sighed as his other arm held me close. “I missed you too, you know.”
A contented rumble filled his chest. After a moment, I stretched up to give him a quick, soft kiss on the lips. He opened his eyes and pouted as I took my hand back.
“Your face is cold,” I grumbled, snuggling against him.
He wiggled his eyebrows. “I have a fire in my room.”
“Do you, now?” I said, batting my eyelashes. “I don’t know as I should be going to a stranger’s room.”
“I will be the perfect gentleman,” he said, with a most ungentlemanly leer. He leaned back a little to look me up and down, and caught sight of my bag and the pink packages peeking out of it. His grin widened and his voice deepened teasingly. “Someone has been to Athena’s. What do we have here, Miss Stackhouse?”
He reached for the packages and I slapped his hand away. “Eric Northman, those are Christmas presents. No peeking.”
“For me?” he said, with a shit-eating grin.
Mine was wider. “Oh, yeah. They’re for you alright.” Just not quite the way he was thinking.
He cocked his head at me, his eyes curious. “And will I like this gift?”
“You’ll just have to wait and see,” I said teasingly. Something cold brushed my cheek and I tilted my head back. It was snowing, soft white flakes floating down around us.
“Snow,” Eric said gleefully, picking me up and spinning me, making me yelp. When he put me down, I was giddy and giggling. “You know what this means?”
“Sledging,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “Tomorrow night. I know the perfect hill.”
“That would be … perfect,” I said, and it really was. Everything was perfect now Eric was here. I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed him tight. “What are you waiting for, you big lug? Take me to that fire and show me what a gentleman you are.”
And for once he did exactly as he was told.
*Special thanks to Magpie Tales for helping us out and gifting suzymeinen with this wonderfully rich story that transposed us to another world in the process. Be sure to leave your comments and likes in thanks to Magpie!
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