“Did you know mortals exchange gifts at Christmas?” Rune said.
“Or course,” Janks said. “You didn’t?”
“I’ve only been on this side a few months. This is my first Christmas.”
“It’s a lot like Yule,” Janks explained. “Usually me and my brothers get together up north and just kinda cut loose.”
“But not this year?”
The troll sighed. “You know how it is. People say things, do things.” He said nothing for several steps, then, “We ain’t talked in a couple of years.”
Family conflicts were the worst. Rune nodded but said nothing.
“So you wanted to get some mortal a present?”
“My landlords have been…very understanding lately. I’m short on cash, but I’ve got good credit with Madam Samarra. You know about her?”
“Runs that New Age bookshop on Bardstown, right? I hear she sells magic stuff—I mean our kind of magic stuff—out of a back room.”
“That’s the one—and yes, she does. But I just wanted some kind of trinket or something for the Colemans. None of ‘the good stuff,’ as she calls it.”
Rune gestured, and he and the troll turned onto Jefferson Street.
“When I got there, she was beside herself. Says a girl had just made off with something from the back: a little hand-held indifference engine.”
Janks sucked in a breath. “What I wouldn’t give for one of those!”
“She couldn’t exactly call the police, given what the girl had stolen, so…”
“So here we are, tracking down a thief.”
“I’d have turned the job down if it weren’t for the Law of Secrecy.”
“I hear you,” Janks said. “You let yourself be known to folks in the Fallow, there’s no telling what kind of backlash it’s gonna bring. One of my brothers had a horn growing out of his forehead for six months.”
“And a child might not be as careful as we would.”
“Crashing waves, you’re right,” Janks said with a gasp. “It’s hard enough for a full-grown troll to remember the rules, but a kid…”
“And Madam Samarra says she was a goblin?”
“Looked like one: dusky-skinned, big eyes, four feet tall or maybe a little more. Said she was almost grown, but she could probably pass for a younger human child if you didn’t look too closely. She ran out of the shop and headed north. All I could do was follow her trail”
“And that’s how come you ended up talking to me.”
“Right,” Rune said. “Here we are.” The rescue mission was a block ahead. He didn’t bother to disguise himself with glamour. He had seen humans with high-arching eyebrows, with hair the color of corn silk, and even sometimes with squarish corners at the tops of their ears. People sometimes noticed there was something different about him, but not often.
The mission was lit up with colorful lights. A couple dozen people sat around folding tables. A Christmas tree gave the room a festive feel, and a big guy in an army surplus jacket played carols on an old upright piano. Some sang along while others shared jokes and stories. A few just stared into space, their expressions indecipherable.
Rune drew to himself the airy chaos, the surging creative force from which his magic sprang. The subtle effort sharpened his senses to beyond even elvish levels. He scanned the room for anything out of place, anyone who might be a thieving young in disguise.
Nearly everyone looked old, or at least worn. Their clothes might have been cleaner or better fitting, but they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company. A woman, maybe one of the clients, busied herself collecting people’s dirty paper plates while a man offered to refill his neighbor’s coffee. Supper was apparently over, but nobody seemed inclined to leave.
There were only a few children; that’s where Rune directed his attention. No, all of them seemed perfectly human.
Footfalls caught his attention. A smiling white-haired man approached him. “Merry Christmas!”
“Are you hungry? Most of the food is put away, but I can fix you a plate if you’d like.”
“No, thank you,” Rune said, still scanning the crowd.
“I’m starving!” Janks announced. He had just spotted the dessert table at the back of the room, and shouldered past the man to get to it.
The white-haired man chuckled. Rune took him to be the leader—the reverend, father, gesith? He was never sure about titles in the Fallow. The man turned back to Rune. “How about some coffee then? Maybe a slice of cake?”
“Tea, please—if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all.”
Rune sat at the end of the nearest table. The man at the piano started a new song, and nearly everyone joined in singing. Rune pretended to mouth the words. He was lost when it came to the fallowmen’s holidays. He did know that the special days familiar to him were often times when the boundary between his world and this one became thin. Might that explain the presence of Madam Samarra’s thief so soon after Midwinter’s Day? Was she someone from the other side?
The white-haired man brought Rune’s tea before the end of the second verse, along with a slice of chocolate cake. At the same time, Janks sat next to him with two paper plates piled high with sweets of every kind.
“Think that’s enough?” Rune said.
“I can always get more,” he said through a mouthful of divinity.
“We can’t stay long. I’m going to ask around, see if anybody remembers—”
“Hold on,” Janks said. He sniffed the air. “Incoming.”
“I dunno. Somebody’s coming. Somebody…ooh!” The troll looked like he’d taken a sniff of something pungent but not unpleasant. “Somebody scared, worried, determined, angry…” He licked his lips and looked Rune in the eye. “She’ll put up a fight if she has to.”
The troll subtly gestured toward the door. She was just slipping in, eyes darting left and right. She looked just as Madam Samarra had described her: short, dusky, in a dingy fleece jacket and a floppy green Santa hat.
The girl skirted around the edge of the room toward the dessert table. Rune sipped his tea as she wrapped a stack of cookies in a paper napkin, slid it into her pocket, and reached back for one more to eat. She did the same thing with the fudge, and then again again with the mixed nuts. All the time, she scanned the room, eyes wide and distrusting.
Janks braced himself to stand up.
Rune said set his hand on the troll’s enormous arm. “Secrecy, remember?”
Rune kept his eyes on the girl. When the reverend or whatever he was approached her, she skirted by him without making eye contact. Open mouthed, he let her walk away.
As she reached the door, Rune stood up and nodded for Janks to follow.
The girl had crossed the street and was hurrying eastward.
“Follow her,” Rune said. “I’ll head her off.” Janks nodded.
Rune ducked between the mission and a neighboring building and let the airy chaos swirl around him, growing into a wild and restless whirlwind. He took in a long, deep breath and took flight.