Riding off into the sunset still meant you had to go to sleep after dark, eventually, anyway. Even if Willa could go on for hours, maybe days, longer, the horses couldn’t. They weren’t magic machines. Rumors always flew around about mechanical horses, though Willa had yet to see one.
Dusk didn’t last forever, and Willa hoped she, Mae, and Sadie would reach some kind of shelter soon before it got too dark to see. Among other things, Willa didn’t want to risk her violin; instruments didn’t come cheap even without the sentimental value, and there were enough thieves around who’d just want to take its power out of her hands.
The sun sank lower and lower, throwing purple-red shadows over the dusty ground, like the world were bleeding light.
“That sun doesn’t look too friendly,” Mae said; her dark hair was starting to blend into the shadows.
“It’s good fortune it’s setting, then?” Sadie said.
All of them burst into giggles at that, knowing a sun hidden beneath the Earth was no better than one shining almost blood-red. Though the coming night wasn’t friendly, Willa did smile, glad to have her two ladyfriends with her.
If she had to ride under a bloody sun, there was nobody she’d rather be with.
Luck decided to smile upon them because as soon as they’d all stopped giggling, an inn appeared on the horizon.
“Did that inn just come out of nowhere?” Mae asked.
“I don’t think that’s possible.” Willa had a magic violin and Durango Black had gotten that speaker monstrosity from somewhere, but creating a whole building out of thin air would have been something else altogether
The place looked reasonable enough; a swinging wooden sign that declared it the Wild Crossroads Inn depicted a four-way crossing under seven stars. Hopefully, there’d be spare beds; sleeping on hay wasn’t the most comfortable way to spend a night.
Stars emerged in the sky just as the group reached the inn. When Willa looked up at the sky, she swore she saw seven stars in the exact formation on the Wild Crossroads Inn’s sign. That was odd; she must have been getting tired. Those stars glowed too brightly when the sky still held traces of purple-red.
A woman emerged from the inn, gazing at them in curiosity. In the light of the setting sun, her strawberry blonde hair looked more pink than was natural. She wore a long, full-skirted dress the color of a forest at the height of summer. It was the greenest thing Willa had seen in weeks.
“Do you have rooms for the night, ma’am?” Willa said.
“Of course, of course. And call me Tally. Ma’am makes me feel so old.” She giggled, light and airy, as she gestured to the door of her inn. “Someone’ll be out to take your horses, if that’s all right? You look like you’ve had a long journey; welcome to my humble inn.”
Shortly thereafter, they discovered that at first glance, the Wild Crossroads Inn looked like any other of its type, with wood-paneled walls, tables and stools scattered about, and boxes and bales of hay for people with nowhere else to sit. In addition to all that, there was a space for dancing that had a slightly raised stage.
Drawings decorated the walls, mostly of flowers and plants that couldn’t exist in the natural world. That was unusual, though maybe Tally had a special interest in growing things. Willa settled at a table with Mae and Sadie, both of whom seemed more tense than normal, even after they’d ordered food. Mae kept looking around, though the other patrons looked like the same men and women found at any such establishment. Willa had to admit she was glad they had better manners than usual about three women traveling alone, though she was less glad about the lack of atmosphere-setting music.
Willa even dared to take Mae’s and Sadie’s hands under the table because nobody was paying them any mind. Of course, the moment they all relaxed into the affection, Tally came by with servings of sarsaparilla for each of them.
“On the house. Would you like anything extra? Your food will be out shortly, I promise,” Tally said.
They all said their thanks for the unsolicited drinks, though Willa didn’t touch hers; she couldn’t say why, but she didn’t want any. Mae and Sadie, however, had other ideas. Tally drifted away just as they put their drinks to their lips. Willa prefered to watch the bubbles rise in the glasses, or to watch her ladyfriends, rather than partake herself.
“Is that Tally sure she gave us the soft version?” Sadie laughed. The flickering light of the tavern caught in her light brown hair. “This has something in it, for certain.”
“Bubbles,” Mae said, far too merrily. “It has bubbles.”
Willa was inclined to agree that the sarsaparilla wasn’t the ordinary kind. The three of them giggled as much or more than ordinary folk, but the sudden levity simply didn’t sit right with Willa; it was too much and too strange.
“You’re bubbly enough.” Willa wondered if her suspicions were fair or not. Just because the inn was a bit odd, didn’t guarantee that it meant them harm.
“There’s no reason not to be bubbly, is there?” Mae said. “We defeated that old Durango Black, so why not be bubbly?”
Sadie nodded her agreement, leaving Willa to nod along with her despite the growing tension in her gut. She didn’t see the point in arguing while her ladyfriends were happy, so she continued to smile along, until Tally drifted back to their table without bringing any food.
“I apologize, ladies. There’s been a delay with your meals. I’m so sorry about that, talk about a failure in hospitality.” Tally’s laugh was far more grating than anything Mae or Sadie ever produced.
“Everything is just fine,” Sadie and Mae said at the same time, smiling at Tally with too-glassy eyes. Their voices were too much in unison and too flat, like mechanical dolls of the kind Willa had never trusted.
“Well, I’m glad.” Tally smiled, right as Sadie and Mae passed out at the table. “Oh dear, it looks like they’ve had too much.”
“Sarsaparilla?” Willa gaped at Tally.
“My special recipe.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It has a kick to it, though some girls can’t handle it. Poor dears.”
“You have to help them,” Willa hissed, leaning forward to glare at Tally. Her hands clenched the edges of the table, hard enough to turn her knuckles white.
The only reason Willa didn’t punch Tally was that she saw Sadie and Mae were still breathing. None of the other patrons seemed to care, making Willa refrain from calling for help just yet.
“I’ll help them.” Tally’s smile grew so sweet that Willa was certain it could be nothing but pure poison. “If you’ll help me.”
“How much money do you want?”
Willa let go of the table, checking her violin was still there. She counted herself lucky Tally hadn’t thought to steal it. Would blasting Tally do any good? It would be one thing if Willa merely needed to get them all out of there, but her limited medical supplies might not work against whatever Tally had used to poison Sadie and Mae. Whatever it was, it was worse than a snakebite, and that time had been bad enough.
“I don’t want money.” Tally’s voice came out sugary sweet, to match the poison of her smile.
“Then what do you want?”
“Of what kind?”
Tally clasped her hands together, and Willa heard her green skirt rustle. Her oddly pink hair caught the light, in a way entirely unlike when Sadie’s hair had shined.
“We’re holding a talent contest in just a few minutes. You’re some kind of musician, aren’t you, dear?” Tally’s gray eyes glinted, contrasting with the honey-sweet appearance of the rest of her. “If you’re so kind as to enter, win or lose, I’ll revive your little friends and let them go. I always extend true hospitality to friends of my contestants. If you win, I’ll extend that same hospitality to you. If you lose, though, I’m afraid you won’t be able to leave. It’s a hazard of the game, you see. Your friends will be safe no matter what, so do we have a deal?”
This was a trap, with failure nearly guaranteed.
Still, Willa replied, “Very well. We have a deal; I’ll join your talent contest.” She wondered if Tally knew her violin was magic, or if she thought her just another mundane player.
Tally clapped, three solid strikes of her hands. “Our talent contest is about to begin,” she said, her voice reverberating through the room. She then turned to Willa, grabbing Willa’s arm. “Get your instrument and come stand with me.”
Having no choice, Willa grabbed her violin and followed Tally, walking with her to a shadowy corner of the room near the stage. Her stomach twisted, but she had no real options other than to follow Tally and do what she wanted.
“The audience and the other contestants are on my side. Do you think you can sway them?” Tally whispered in Willa’s ear.
“Yes.” Faking confidence might lead to real confidence. Willa gave Tally her own poisonously sweet smile, making the woman blink.
“Cora, you’re first.” Tally clapped again, and a petite young woman stepped out of the crowd and onto the stage.
Cora had sky blue eyes, golden blonde hair, a pale heart-shaped face and delicate features. She resembled a porcelain doll, and the frilly pink dress she wore didn’t help that impression. To be fair, Willa’s skirt was frilly in its own way, though Cora’s didn’t look as useful for dancing.
She didn’t need to dance.
It turned out that Cora was a singer with a voice made of crystal. She sang about a lady and her lost lost love, hitting high, clear notes that brought to mind some kind of ice palace. Willa was impressed, except Cora’s song lacked true power. The notes called to mind an impossible ice palace, but it wasn’t a magical building Cora conjured, not to Willa.
When Cora finished, she curtsied and the room broke out in enthusiastic applause: yet, nobody stood up and cheered. That gave Willa hope as she added her own polite applause to the noise. She knew how to win over a crowd.
“Cora, that was lovely.” Tally hugged Cora, then faced the stage and clapped again. “Ava, it’s your turn.”
Ava played the flute. She was as tall as Cora was petite, with more curves as well, and her outfit, a royal blue dress, was as flowing, streamlined and elegant as Cora’s were frilly and young. She wore a matching artificial flower in her dark copper hair.
As elegant as Ava was, her music was light and fluttering, calling to mind birds in springtime. Willa thought she was dressed incorrectly for the effect she wanted, but she did play well. Tally nodded along to Ava’s flute, as did a few other patrons. Unlike them, Willa remained as still as possible, trying not to look at Mae and Sadie slumped over their table. Nobody else seemed to care about them, but she did.
When Ava finished, she was met with more enthusiastic response than Cora had been. A few patrons even stood up and cheered. Tally squealed in delight, applauding along with everyone else, and Willa shuddered to see the joy on on her face. Ava also received a hug from Tally.
“It’s your turn.” Tally’s lip curled in undisguised distaste.
Willa answered with her absolutely sweetest smile, curtseying to Tally before taking the stage. She flashed a more sincere smile to the crowd. Tally may have already hated her, but she needed to get them on her side.
She knew exactly what song to play, too.
Flashing one more smile at the audience, Willa began. This tune was sure to get everyone dancing, including Willa herself. Rollicking music poured from her instrument, sending energy into the room as Willa danced in time with her own tune. The air vibrated with sound and magic neither Ava nor Cora possessed. Willa kicked up her leg as she hit a particularly joyous note. Whatever she did, she couldn’t think about how Mae and Sadie were in danger. She could, however, think about them and how their love and her music should have more power than the Wild Crossroads Inn.
Willa kept playing, and she saw the other people in the room start to clap in time with her song. She thought she saw Tally scowl, and that could have only been a good sign. As Willa played, the enthusiasm in the room grew. Willa’s skirt swished and twirled as she danced, flying out as she spun. Her playing never flagged, and Willa hit exactly the mood she wanted. The music built up and up and up, taking Willa and everyone else in the room to heights of joy nobody else in the room had yet reached.
When Willa played her final, triumphant note, silence fell upon the room. It stretched longer than the limits of time and space should have allowed, and Willa tried to ignore the way her heart wanted to leap out of her throat and run away. She wished she could run away.
All at once, the Wild Crossroads Inn erupted. Everyone leaped to their feet, shouting, clapping and cheering.
Willa bowed. “Thank you very much.”
She stood back up and saw that Mae and Sadie were awake, dazed but clearly alive and able to stand on their own two feet.
“So, Tally, how did I do?” She couldn’t decipher Tally’s expression.
It lived up to its name: nobody made them participate in bizarre talent shows, and the sarsaparilla contained only what was supposed to be there.
The room they shared had a bed big enough for all three of them, and a pretty brick fireplace they didn’t have to use in this weather. With how close Willa, Mae, and Sadie snuggled on the bed, they were all more than warm enough.
“I wish I could’ve seen you scare that Tally with your magical violin,” Sadie said, pouting. “The look on her face must have been something.”
“Did you break her mind? I imagine you broke her mind.” Mae giggled.
“I didn’t want to destroy anyone’s mind, but Tally was impressed despite herself.” Willa realized Mae wasn’t being serious, so she smiled at her.
She held her two ladyfriends even closer than usual, wanting to offer comfort after their encounter with the Wild Crossroads Inn. To make things stranger, nobody at the Safe Haven had heard of the place. Willa considered them fortunate in their ignorance.
“Are you all right?” Sadie said.
“I’m going to be. How are you two holding up?”
Mae winced. “This headache is rotten, I’ll say that much, but I’m going to be fine as well.”
Willa leaned over and kissed her on the lips.
“Were you really going to let Tally keep you if you’d failed? All that, for us?” Mae said.
“Would either of you have done any different?” Willa couldn’t imagine either Mae or Sadie would have
Sadie laughed in clear agreement, and Mae joined in. Willa soon followed, planting a kiss on Mae’s lips; maybe that would alleviate the pain of her rotten headache. In the interest of fairness, Willa gave Sadie a kiss, too; she didn’t want anyone to feel left out and just plain enjoyed kissing both her ladyfriends. She also loved the softness of the bed, and that of Sadie and Mae.
All that softness made Willa’s mind drift to things besides simple snuggling. “I have an idea,” she said, thinking it might help them all get the twisted events of earlier out of their minds. As much as everyone acted like they were fine, it couldn’t hurt to occupy themselves with something more diverting.
“Does it involve this bed?” Sadie batted her eyelashes at Willa.
“There’s more than one kind of sleeping you can do on a bed, if you want to, of course.”
“We want to,” Mae and Sadie said in unison.
Willa pulled them close.