But if the woman the ghosts had mentioned wasn’t Myra, she could only be another Pythia. Maybe my power had gotten confused, or I’d been called in as help on a difficult problem. Since I didn’t know how this gig worked, anything was possible. If I could find her, I could plead for a little professional courtesy and get her to send Pritkin and me back where we belonged.
“Can you show me this other woman? Maybe I can convince her to leave and to send me home, too.”
The woman looked unsure, but the head seemed happy to help. “Of course we can! She’s not far,” it babbled cheerfully. “She was in one of the boxes earlier.”
The man’s enthusiasm seemed to help the woman decide, and she nodded brusquely. “Quickly, then.”
The ghosts followed me down the stairs, politely not passing through me, then led the way to the box beside Mircea’s. I parted the curtains and peered inside, but it was empty. Onstage a woman in a green medieval gown with huge, red-lined sleeves was gesturing dramatically. I barely noticed her. My eyes fixed on Mircea, who was staring at the elaborate gilt frame of the stage instead of the actress, with the fixed gaze of someone who isn’t really seeing it. I felt the same. One look at him and everything else suddenly seemed irrelevant. I had been bespelled before, but it had never felt like this. Then I’d known it was fake; I just hadn’t cared. But even knowing this was due to a
, it still felt unbelievably real. I could hate that he’d done this to me, but I couldn’t hate him. The very thought was absurd.
“There.” The ghost pointed a finger in front of my face. “The wine has already been delivered.”
She indicated a tray with a bottle and several glasses that sat on a small table behind the seats occupied by Mircea and the blonde. “What are you talking about?” I forced my eyes to look at the ghost instead of Mircea, and something like rational thought returned. “Are you telling me that bottle is poisoned?”
“She said she would stay until it was consumed, but perhaps her power was insufficient.” The ghost looked pleased for the first time. I could almost hear her thinking,
One down, one to go.
I ignored her, my panic at the thought of anything happening to Mircea so overwhelming that I could hardly bear it. I ran out of the box and collided with Pritkin, who had been standing there looking annoyed. He steadied us both or we would have ended up on the floor. “Let go!” I batted at his hands, which were gripping my upper arms painfully. “I have to get in there!”
“I told you to stay away from him. Do you want to become completely besotted?”
“Then you do it,” I said, deciding he might be right. I wanted to go in that box way too much for it to be a good idea. “There’s a bottle of wine in there, and it may be poisoned. You have to get it!” I didn’t know whether poison would kill a vamp, but I didn’t intend to find out.
He tried out his usual glare for a second, then his face changed and I knew I was in trouble. “If I do this, do you swear to speak with me for as long as I wish without shifting times, attempting to kill me or placing any spells, curses or other impediments in my way?”
I blinked at him. “You want to
?” We never talked. Stabbed, shot at and tried to blow each other up, sure, but never talked. “About what?” I asked nervously, but Pritkin only gave me an evil smile. He had me over a barrel and he knew it. “Fine. Whatever. We’ll talk as long as
agree not to try to kill me, imprison me or drag me off to the Circle— or anybody else. And you don’t get an indefinite time, either. One hour, take it or leave it.”
“Agreed.” To give him credit, he didn’t waste time once the bargain was struck, but immediately let me go and slipped past the curtain. For several minutes I waited anxiously, but nothing happened. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and went back to the empty box so I could at least see what was going on. It wasn’t good.
Onstage, a skinny Macbeth with a drooping moustache was starting the dagger-of-the-mind soliloquy, while in the box, Pritkin had a real dagger at his throat, courtesy of the blonde. She was being shielded from the audience by Mircea, who stood behind her, but my box was closer to the stage and I could see them clearly.
Before I could think how to help Pritkin, things got worse when Mircea started to open the bottle. His eyes were on the mage and there was a slight smile on his lips. I didn’t like that look. Mircea has always been a strong believer in letting the punishment fit the crime. If he’d decided that Pritkin was trying to poison them, he was fully capable of forcing the entire contents of the bottle down the mage’s throat and waiting to see what happened.
Normally, Pritkin might have been able to get out of this kind of thing on his own, but he was trying not to call attention to what was happening. I sympathized with his dedication to the whole integrity-of-the-timeline thing, but getting killed over it seemed a little fanatical. I was Pythia, at least temporarily, and I wasn’t willing to go that far. Normally I wouldn’t lose much sleep over Pritkin’s death, but he had gone into that box because I asked him. If he died, it would be partially my fault.
I sighed and raised my wrist. A dimly glowing dagger practically jumped out of my bracelet to hover beside my arm. It was fairly buzzing with excitement over the prospect of a fight, but I wasn’t sure this was a great plan. Among other things, I had a feeling that it might decide to stab Pritkin instead of shattering the bottle. They had a history and, as far as I knew, had yet to fight on the same side.
“Take out the bottle
,” I told it sternly. “Don’t attack the mage—you know how he gets. I mean it.”
I got a faint bob of what I hoped was agreement before it was off. It flew over the balcony, straight for the bottle, which Mircea had just raised to Pritkin’s lips. It shattered the thick glass easily, causing dark red wine to cascade over the mage’s coat and splash Mircea’s formerly pristine white shirt. Mircea whirled around, the bottle’s neck still in hand, and saw me. He opened his mouth as if to say something, then stopped and just stood there, looking dazed.
Unfortunately my knife didn’t follow his example but decided to ham it up. Onstage, Macbeth was asking if this was a dagger he saw before him. My flashing, luminescent knife dipped and swooped over the startled crowd, causing gasps and even a few screams, before coming to a halt in front of the actor’s stunned face. It bobbed up and down for a minute, as if taking a bow, then flew back to me. Thunderous applause broke out all over the theatre, drowning out the rest of the actor’s lines.
As soon as the attention hog melted back into my bracelet, I felt the disorientation spread over me that indicated that a time shift was coming. “Grab my hand, quick!” I yelled at Pritkin. “Takeoff is any second.”
He had used the moment of distraction to jerk away from the blonde. She was between him and the way out, but he got around that problem by vaulting onto an unused seat and launching himself across the divide between the boxes. He almost slipped on the edge, but I caught his hand. The next minute, we were once more spinning through time.
We landed in a heap on a white tile floor, and something fell with a
right in front of my nose. My eyes crossed trying to identify the pale pink item. As soon as I did, I shrieked and scrambled back, knocking Pritkin off balance in the process. A crooked hand with skin the color and texture of old stone grabbed the offending item and returned it to a silver tray. “No guests allowed,” I was informed in a gravelly baritone.
I didn’t reply, being too busy staring at the platter of severed fingers that the owner of the voice was clutching between long, curved claws. I should have been more concerned by the greenish gray face, like mildewed rock, that was peering at me over the tray. It had a deep scar running from temple to neck and its only remaining eye, a narrowed yellow orb, was fighting for forehead space with two black, curled horns—not something you see every day. But I couldn’t seem to tear my attention away from the severed digits.
There had to be twenty or more, all index fingers as far as I could tell, that had been shoved between pieces of bread. The crusts had been trimmed away and a piece of ruffled romaine lettuce carefully wrapped around each one. Finger sandwiches, some part of my brain observed. I choked, caught between a retch and a hysterical giggle.
My gaze moved around what I now identified as a busy kitchen. Another of the stone-colored things—this one with glowing green eyes and bat wings—stood on a stool at a nearby island, pressing something into small, finger-shaped molds. My frozen brain finally thawed enough to recognize the smell. “Oh, thank God.” I sagged against Pritkin in relief. “It’s pâté!”
“Where are we?” he demanded, dragging me to my feet. I had trouble standing, both because I’d somehow lost a shoe and because a larger gray thing barreled past, knocking me back with a flailing tail. It was wearing a starched white linen chef’s outfit, complete with little red scarf and tall hat. The breast of the tunic had a very familiar crest emblazoned on it in bright red, yellow and black—Tony’s colors.
“Dante’s.” When Pritkin had fallen on me at the theatre, my concentration must have wobbled. We’d ended up a little off course.
“You’re sure this is the casino?” The mage was eyeing a nearby platter, which contained radishes that had been partly skinned to resemble human eyeballs. They had olives for pupils, and it almost looked like the pimentos were glowering at us. I took a closer look at the shield, a copy of which adorned every uniform in sight and appeared over a set of swinging doors across the room. It looked very familiar.
Antonio Gallina had been born into a family of chicken farmers outside Florence about the time Michelangelo was carving his fawn for old man Medici. But, some two hundred years later, when the impoverished English king Charles I started selling noble titles to fund his art obsession, the illegitimate farmer’s son turned master vamp had had more than enough stashed away to buy himself a baronetcy. I personally thought that the heralds, the men who had designed Tony’s coat of arms, had spent a little too long at the pub the night before. I guess it could have been worse—like the poor French apothecary who was granted arms showing three silver chamber pots—but the comical yellow hen in the middle of Tony’s shield was bad enough. It was supposedly a play on his last name, which means chicken in Italian, but the fat bird bore an uncanny resemblance to its owner.
“Pretty sure,” I said. I would have elaborated, but one of the creatures doing the cooking, a diminutive specimen with a hairnet confining its long, floppy donkey ears, scurried by. It ran over my bare foot with clawed toenails, causing me to wince and press farther back. That resulted in Pritkin getting smashed into a slotted cart filled with trays of tiny black caldrons.
those things?” I demanded. I kicked off my remaining shoe to keep from breaking my neck in case we had to run for it. I kept a wary eye on the creature in front of us, but he didn’t seem overtly hostile, despite his looks. The only thing he was doing to back up his request was to point forcefully at the swinging doors with a spoon.
“Rum torte,” a tiny chef croaked in passing. He was wearing only the top half of the usual tunic-and-trousers set, which in his case brushed the floor. A long, lizardlike tail protruded from beneath it.
He resembled most of the other creatures in the room, the majority of which had bat wings, clawed hands and long tails, but there the similarity ended. Their heads were everything from avian to reptilian, with a few furred ones here and there. Some had horns and others droopy ears, and their height ranged from maybe two feet to tall enough to stare me in the chest. Their eyes varied in color and size, but all of them seemed to glow, as if lit from inside by a high-powered bulb. It was unnerving, especially since they reminded me of something, and I couldn’t quite figure out what.
“Gargoyles,” Pritkin said as we stumbled through the swinging doors into a short hallway. At the end, a door that looked like old, carved wood but was too light to be real let out into a much longer and wider corridor. It was lined with medieval weaponry and cobweb-covered suits of armor, and dimly lit by flickering torches—fake, of course. Dante’s wards were minimal on the upper floors, so electricity worked okay except for the occasional splutter. And real torches would have been hard to get past the fire codes.
I stopped and glared at the mage, who was looking around like he expected something to jump him at any moment. It would really be nice if the universe could stop throwing creatures out of fables, myths and nightmares at me. “There’s no such thing as gargoyles!” I said just as two of the little monsters pulled a cart out of the door and began tugging it down the hallway. The floor, painted to look like weathered stone, was carpeted with a narrow strip of old maroon plush barely two feet wide that ran down the middle. It didn’t do much decorwise, and it threatened to tip the cart over whenever one of the wheels encountered it. “It’s just a name for fancy rainspouts,” I insisted, even as my eyes told me otherwise. “Everyone knows that.”
“How can you have lived so long in our world and know so little?” Pritkin demanded. “You must have seen stranger things. You grew up at a vampire’s court!”
By this time, the servers had navigated the corridor and paused in front of an elevator. One of them pressed the call button with the tip of a pointed tail. He had the face of a dog and a bat’s body, while his companion was covered in grayish scales and was drooling around a two-foot-long tongue.
“The strangest thing about our cook in Philly,” I told Pritkin dazedly, “was that he was almost deaf from years of blasting heavy metal. But he was human. Well,” I amended after a moment, “until that time Tony promised an important visitor fettuccine Alfredo, only the cook somehow heard bacon, lettuce and tomato. . . . Anyway, shouldn’t they be off decorating a cathedral somewhere?”