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The Night Market

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“Let's go, slowpoke,” Amelia called from the corridor as she rapped on my 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 colder than this Southern gal could take without a layer of wool. I threw the scarf around my neck and shoved the gloves in a pocket, but when I reached 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 at any moment.

Somehow I couldn't shake the hope that he would.

A ridiculous hope given the sun shining through the window. Doubly ridiculous as I was the one who'd run away when the going got tough, and to another continent no less.

I missed him like crazy. So much it hurt.

But Amelia was waiting and I'd promised myself I wouldn't waste what was likely to be my one and only tour of Europe on any pity parties. 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 that complemented the sparkle of excitement in her eyes.

“Sorry. Couldn't find my gloves,” I said as I shut the door.

Without further preamble, she waved me towards the elevator and began to chatter about our plans for the day.

Her plans, I should say. This was Amelia's trip. Her father had dangled a blank check under her nose and practically begged her to leave Louisiana for a solid month and get away from 'those weird folks you hang out with'. Meaning other witches. Amelia didn't usually pay any mind to Copley Carmichael's disapproval, but the suggestion of a European tour proved too big a temptation and I came home one night to find travel brochures all over the kitchen table and Amelia's hopeful face. She didn't want to travel alone.

I'd just endured yet another week of too many double shifts at Merlotte's and too many arguments with Eric over how to handle the latest shenanigans from Victor Madden, so it hadn't taken much to persuade me to tag along. Copley, thank the Lord, didn't know I was up to my eyeballs in my own supe problems, or he'd have been none too pleased with Amelia's choice of travelling companion.

Our tour had encompassed Paris and Rome so far. 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 about them 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 Amelia 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, who was a Roman, 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 lips 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.

So I slipped my arm through hers as we turned a corner and forced seasonal cheer into my voice. “Christmas markets here we come.”

~~00~~

It was a gorgeous winter's day, cool and crisp, with a clear, ice-blue sky. The first market on our itinerary 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, the spectacular view over Cologne and the Rhine took the last of my breath.

On the way down, legs aching, I pushed away thoughts of someone who could fly me to the ground in an instant.

The market was lovely. Neat rows of red wooden stalls 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, washed down with the Gluhwein that Amelia said I just had to try. Spiced and 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 and I couldn't help smirking every time I glanced her way.

As the sky began to cloud, we hit a second 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 gnome with a pink beard.

The fairy-lights on the stalls began to glow against the darkening sky, bringing fond memories of Gran, hands on hips, telling a teenage Jason exactly how to hang a string of lights over the porch back home. 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 to admire 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.

It winked at me.

I was sure it did, but when I squinted at it suspiciously, I felt 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 with my telepathy—

Amelia tugged on my arm and said in a rush, “Sookie, there's another market we just have to see. A night market.”

“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 sounds amazing and 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 houses painted pink and blue and cream. I snapped a few pictures, they were so pretty, even though it was really 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, I realised uneasily.

“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 those 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, and interacting with witches came with certain hazards. The trouble we barely got out of in Rome…

So I wasn't as thrilled as Amelia was about a market frequented by witches. Still, 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 dusk, a pale terracotta.

The alley was unlit. An elaborate ironwork arch marked the dark entrance and a wilting bunch of greenery hung from it. 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 were spoken to her retreating back. Muttering under my breath about impulsive friends, I followed her into the alley.

~~00~~

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 bricks, 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 before. One moment there had only been the sounds 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, sucking in an anxious hiss of air.

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.

Maybe even 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 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 separating me from the real world. Some tourists passed by and the sound of their laughter came to me 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, about to give her a piece of my mind on the wisdom of trusting strange witches and even stranger markets.

Over her shoulder, I saw head poke around the corner ahead of us, low down and silhouetted against the light. At the same time a voice called: “Are ye wanting the night market or not?”

Amelia yelped and about leaped into next week, a hand clutching at her chest. Ha! She was just as nervous as I was, the big faker. Breathing fast, she turned to see who'd spoken and 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. His 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 he was bigger now, three feet tall.

“In or out, ladies?” he said gruffly. “Quick now, give me an answer.”

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, if that's what he was, might consider that rude.

“Ye must take the oath, then.” 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 him, “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 the words were spoken the air filled with the scent of wood-smoke and pine, and 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 around the corner. “That way, ladies. Just keeping going.”

Past the corner the alley was unlit. Boughs of spruce and pine hung on the walls and the air was filled with their crisp, clean scent. There was another corner ahead, some way away and marked by a lantern.

“I thought this was a Christmas market,” I whispered, once we'd gotten a little further from the gnome. I didn't know how well he could hear and I didn't want to offend him.

“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 if I wanted to get caught up in something like 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. That's the first gnome you've met!” Her thoughts had betrayed her.

She shrugged sheepishly and then smiled at me. “This is so exciting, Sookie. There's nothing like it back home.”

Her grin was infectious and when she sped up, I matched her pace. It was a little exciting and so far it didn't seem dangerous. So far. The noise grew louder as we approached the second corner. I picked out voices, laughter, singing and the sound of bells. 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 with soft colour, 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.

~~00~~

I leaned over a tray of necklaces, admiring the rows of delicate carved pendants gleaming in the 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.”

“Uh-huh.” I bit my lip. They were lovely, but delicate wasn't exactly Eric's style. What did one buy for a thousand year old vampire anyway? I was stumped.

The jewellery stall was tented but quiet, its canvas walls muffling the sounds from the market around us more than canvas should. I reckoned magic was responsible for that, but whatever it was, the hush was broken when the proprietor shifted slightly.

His steps clacked noisily on the floor and I got the crazy notion he was wearing clogs.

Probably not, I thought, stifling a giggle and bending over the necklaces again. The proprietor was snappy dresser. I doubted he'd pair clogs with his velvet jacket and bowler hat, both a deep plum that coordinated with his perfectly-tied lilac silk cravat and the matching lilac handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket. He was tanned and well-groomed, with black, tightly-curled hair and a neat 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 it would be rude to ask.

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 he'd appreciated a gift that implied he needed magic to turn a profit.

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. Maybe not anything at all below the waist, I'd whipped my eyes north before I could be sure. But that wasn't the most shocking thing, oh no. His feet were cloven-hooved, hence 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 front and centre.

Amelia, who had been examining a tray of round, polished stones the size of eggs, saw my face and came to my rescue. “Excuse me,” she called. “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.

Oh wow. That explained the hooves and the fur, and now I recognised it, the faint smell of goat.

“The serpentine, madam. What an excellent choice!”

Money changed hands. After the things I'd seen in the last hour, it somehow didn't seem at all odd that a faun was quite happy to be paid in Euros. The dapper creature 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. I suspected she'd put a spell on it — it never seemed to get full no matter how many souvenirs she bought.

An attractive couple came in then, 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 that they were fairies from the luminescence of their skin, that attractive radiance all 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 and 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 stuck-up fairies,” 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 again. And again. Each tremor was accompanied by a dull thud, and Amelia craned to look over my shoulder.

“Oh my,” she gasped, her eyes widening. That has to be a troll. What the hell else could it be?

I whipped around and gaped 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 same width as the logs balanced on its shoulder, as it happened. Its skin was grey-green and all it wore was a very large, very dirty pair of Lederhosen. Feet the size of small missiles slapped heavily on the cobblestones, and ponderous, swinging steps brought the hulking creature towards us with all the unstoppable momentum of a tank. A bulbous nose sat in the centre of its flat broad face, a face overhung by a thick-boned forehead and bushy eyebrows that cast its eyes deep into shadow. It was its mouth that caught and held my attention though, or rather the two blunt, yellowing tusks that curved wickedly up out of it.

Tusks that screamed it would be dangerously stupid to get in its way.

I stepped smartly backwards and dragged Amelia, who was still catching flies, out of its path. 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 night sky.

“You sure don't see that every day,” I said, staring after its broad retreating back. 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 wistfully, her eyes round and fixed in the direction it had gone.

In a moment of generosity I said, “Why don't we go see.”

~~00~~

It wasn't difficult to follow the troll, mainly because folks came out of the booths and stalls to yell at it, arms akimbo, or to stare after it, mouths agape. I was pleased to see I wasn't the only one taken aback and concluded 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 workshop.

Amelia and I stopped at a respectable distance and looked the place over. One side 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, their rims spattered thickly with wax of all colours. A little old woman in a full skirt was bent over one, stirring the contents, wisps of her white hair escaping from a pretty green head scarf embroidered with red roses. Her face was wizened and flushed from her task, which she abandoned 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 as she came forwards.

The troll made a series of grunting, rumbling sounds in reply. She poked and prodded him towards a workbench scattered with wood chips and shavings. There, more carefully than I expected considering his size, he put down the logs he was carrying, next to some chisels and a hatchet.

Amelia took my arm and tugged me closer as the old woman turned to the back of the workshop and 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 a dark ring of liquid from his mouth.

Not wine dark. Blood dark.

Vampire.

I stiffened and exchanged a wary glance with Amelia, but she just 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 around his waist.

Whistling to himself, he began inspecting the logs, picking them up and turning them over. Amelia nudged me and pointed. Now we were closer, I could see the shelves behind the workbench that held examples of his work: carved logs decorated with ivy and holly. Some were carved with dancing figures, fauns, satyrs, nymphs, and other creatures I didn't recognise. Some were carved into faces that look like they were bursting out of the bark, faces that were human, faces that were not.

“Dab hand with the axe, our Hans,” said Frau Talwynn, suddenly much nearer. I hadn't seen her move. “Will 'ee be wanting a Yule log, my lovelies?

“I'd love one,” Amelia said wistfully, “but I don't think we can get it back home. We're American, you see.”

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 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. “The right sort of 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?

“Okay. Um, forgive my ignorance, but what exactly is Yule?”

As Hans picked up the hatchet Talwynn explained. “It be a celebration of light at the darkest time, in 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. So that 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 himself, 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.”

At vampire speed, he began a flurry of hacking and then chiselling, chips and curls of wood falling from the log like leaves stripped from a tree in a storm. It was something to see, that was for sure, and the face Amelia had chosen melted out of the wood under his skilful hands.

Old Father Time.

Who looked a lot like Santa to me. I would tell Jason that's who it was, should he make an appearance at my house and ask. No need to confuse him — my brother's idea of a New Year tradition was getting wasted and going home with some random woman.

“What do we do with it?” I asked Talwynn.

“'Ee burn it, of course. Once it be lit, it must burn to ashes in the hearth without going out. That will bring 'ee luck all next year. Some folk like to sit round it while it burns and tell ghost stories. Some light wishing-candles from it instead.” She waved at the candles dripping from the ceiling. “One for everyone in the house. Youngest to eldest, each lights their candle and makes a secret wish, all staying silent until the last candle is lit. 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 buy more than three candles.”

Amelia gasped and turned to me.

“Don't worry,” I said, laughing. “I was going to get some anyway. They're just lovely, Frau Talwynn.”

“Thank 'ee kindly, dear,” 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 Yule log at us.

“Would you like it scented?” Hans asked, reaching for a rack of bottles filled with amber and golden liquids. “Enchanted oils, they release their fragrance as it burns.”

Amelia settled on apple-cinnamon. 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 still want to celebrate with me when I got home. As Talwynn wrapped them carefully, I stared into space and sighed. Eric hadn't been best pleased about my vacation.

Europe is over-rated,” he said dismissively, as if the idea was ridiculous.

Is it? I wouldn't know, I've never been,” I said sarcastically. “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 again, beaten and bruised.

Just a typical month for a human who interacted with vampires, werewolves and demons on a regular basis. Victor was behind this latest attack, attempting to show that Eric couldn't protect me, his damn asset .

Victor was far too interested in us, and his interference was escalating, as were his persistent demands for my services. I shuddered. The glint in his eyes last time he turned up at Fangtasia hinted that the 'services' he was after were more than just telepathy.

Eric had been quietly furious about that, but he had to make good with the new regime and his hands were tied. So he hadn't given in to the impulse to rip Victor into tiny pieces and stomp on them.

Well. One of us had certainly wanted to commit a bloody murder that night, but truthfully the impulse might have been mine. So much anger had flashed through the bond, I couldn't tell whose it was. Victor infuriated the heck out of us both.

You should stay here,” Eric insisted, folding his arms. As if insisting had ever worked on me.

Oh really,” I snapped, still feeling the anger I felt for Victor. “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 from an ocean away.”

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, Victor would—”

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 vampire who decides to interfere in my life because there's an R in the month — is gonna stop me!”

I stomped out of his office in a snit , slamming the door for good measure.

And 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 Area 5, let alone Louisiana, that I hadn't even said goodbye properly. Instead, I left him an angry voicemail insisting I didn't want to see or speak to him until I got back. And when I did, I'd call him.

Then, to add insult to injury, once I was safely on this side of the Atlantic and still in a state of high dudgeon over the way I'd been treated, I'd pressed Amelia to conduct a certain piece of magic, a spell that would inform Eric in no uncertain terms that I was not his damn property to order about at will.

All without actually speaking to the high-handed asshole, as I was referring to Eric at the time.

But I wasn't completely heartless. I'd left him a message, a terse heads-up on his answering machine while I knew he was dead for the day. Cowardly perhaps, but it was better that way.

So Eric and I hadn't spoken since I arrived in Europe. Oh, Pam had phoned Amelia a few times, including right after said piece of magic, when she asked to speak to me in a transparent ploy to check up on me for her Maker. But Eric hadn't called me himself and I hadn't asked Pam a damn thing about him on principle. Consequently, I had no idea how Eric was or how we stood after my little stunt, but I refused to be the first one to call, certain he was the one in the wrong.

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. He was probably furious with me and I was in limbo, not even sure if we were still an 'us'. Shit, what if —

Talwynn touched my arm, startling me out of my thoughts. “'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, hmm?”

I blinked at her. How did she know Eric 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 miss the Cornish Guise dancers later. My nephew is leader of the troupe, and they're a sight to be seen.”

~~00~~

The sign on the very pink tent read: Athena's Emporium.

Stepping inside, we found ourselves in an Aladdin’s cave of lingerie. Skimpy creations in everything from lace and silk to leather and latex hung from crowded racks. Athena herself, a large, full-bellied woman in a striking blue dress, bustled over and welcomed us warmly. The dress was silk, 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, a demon in the woodpile somewhere. Her teeth were certainly pointed, just like Diantha's.

And her tongue may have been forked. I didn't care to look too closely.

“I cater to all shapes and sizes,” she boasted at the end of her sales pitch. “And all tastes.”

She wiggled her thick dark eyebrows suggestively and I thought for one awful moment that she would ask what my tastes were. But instead she invited us to browse and left us in peace, perching herself on a high stool facing the entrance and picking up the paperback she'd been reading when we came in.

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 while I was picking out something to please a boyfriend who might not even be a boyfriend.

I needn't have worried.

Traipsing around the Emporium on Amelia's heels turned out to be more awkward than taking racy photos with a my gay fairy cousin. By the time we'd circled the whole place and investigated all its nooks and crannies, I still had no idea what to get Eric and I was sure my cheeks matched the tent, which was particularly bright shade of fuchsia.

Athena didn't just sell lingerie.

For a start, there was a row of glass-fronted cabinets, each full of odd shaped bottles. The first had contained scented massage oils. Nothing too blush-inducing there, but also nothing that caught my interest. 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.

A third, heavily padlocked, held vials of love potions. Only short-acting ones Amelia assured me, nothing that would be against some code or other that witches had that forbade inducing permanent states of infatuation. Remembering Hallows plans for Eric, I shuddered and moved on. Even temporarily forcing someone to feel that way was against my principles. The last cabinet held aphrodisiacs and lust potions, and several supe variations on Viagra.

None of which were any use to me. Eric didn't need that kind of assistance in the slightest.

Then there was the 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. But it was the alcove of bedroom equipment that really heated my cheeks. I couldn't fathom a purpose for some of them, and I didn't much want to. A few looked like implements of torture to me.

Oh, I wasn't completely naive, no telepath who grew up reading adult minds could be. I knew what folks did with handcuffs and whips and nipple-clamps. Each to their own, live and let live, and all that. I just didn't have a burning desire to know any more about it all than I had to. I definitely didn't need to hear Amelia's curious thoughts about the more unusual things on the shelves and hanging from the canvas roof.

The snippets I caught by accident pretty much guaranteed I'd never be able to look her in the eye again.

Amelia, however, was in her element. I was still empty-handed, but she'd had no trouble filling a basket with goodies for her and Tray to enjoy. No chew toys or collars with studs on for her werewolf beau, though. I managed to tease her about that despite my burning cheeks. I left her picking out a perfume tailored to werewolves and went hunting out a gift for Eric on my own, trying to look sophisticated or at the very least like I knew what I was doing.

Stopping beside some leather corsets that I'd passed three times, I fingered one cautiously and frowned. Would Eric like to see me in one or would he hate the thought of me dressed as a fangbanger as much as I did?

My face must've said it all, because the owner took pity on me and came over, a kind look on her face. “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 my 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.

“Must be old one I'll wager, with her blood line,” the demon owner said. She removed her glasses and chewed thoughtfully on one end of them. “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 with shallow, wide drawers and slid one out to reveal a display case of pretty pastel camisoles and underwear sets. “Are these are more your taste?”

“I guess.” I sighed, disappointed.

“Hm. You were hoping to surprise him with something more risqué?” 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 case with a very long, curved fingernail. “These are something special, 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 me naked, so it wasn't a terrible idea. “Hm. I suppose it would save a fortune in replacements…”

“Bit of a bodice-ripper, is he?” She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Males! They have no idea how difficult it is to find a well-fitting brassiere. They have it far too easy with their own undergarments.”

That gave me an idea, a perfect idea for a peace offering. “Do you have something similar for guys?”

“Guys?” She frowned in confusion. “Yes, but I don't follow…”

“And can anyone vanish them, or is it just the wearer?”

“Well, my customers are mostly female and 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.

“You want them tuned to you? Oh, I see! What an excellent idea! Yes, that'll be quite the surprise.” 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 boxershorts, close enough to the ones he wore in Jackson.

“Good choices. What size is he?”

“Oh, he's a big guy,” Amelia said from 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 Christmas gift I just knew Eric would get a kick out of. If he was still speaking to me when I got home in a week.

I sighed heavily as we left. Another week seemed like forever.

~~00~~

A piercing squeal tore the air, followed by a cacophony of shouting.

An enormous black boar charged in our direction and it was Amelia's turn to pull me out of the way. It tore past us, grunting and bucking, its tail flapping madly. Folk scattered out of its way, dropping packages and cursing. In hot pursuit came three vertically-challenged gentlemen, of the goblin persuasion if their similarity to Mr Hob was anything to go by. In bloody aprons, they pounded full-tilt after the boar. The leader waved a meat cleaver over his head and shouted something guttural and angry.

The boar shook its head from side to side, scattering trails of saliva from its mouth. Then it threw itself abruptly sideways, its feet skittering on the cobbles as it turned on a dime. Squeezing between two stalls, it disappeared. The trio stormed after it, shouting and waving their arms.

“What the hell was that?” I asked no-one in particular.

Amelia blinked rapidly. “I have no idea.”

A matronly woman with the mental signature of a witch and 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 goblin butchers would learn, but they never do.”

A murmur rippled through the crowd. Bells jingled frantically, the sound coming from the same direction the boar had. I had no idea what to expect this time, but the woman didn't seem disturbed. On the contrary, she put her basket down on the ground at her feet and said in a satisfied tone, “Ah, here they come.”

The crowd parted and I gasped.

Reindeer, with shining red noses, walking in a sedate line. White and red patterned blankets thrown over their backs, they had riders: children, carrying leather straps sewn with bells and shaking them 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 and 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. I soon found out why it was called giggling candy. Out of the blue, a bubble of laughter welled in my throat and Amelia clapped her hand over her mouth. 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 this time. I was picturing Eric guffawing away on the dias in 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 in that moment. Pam would so prank him with it and then glamour the vermin to forget it.

~~00~~

The dancing bears were performing 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 trestle tables 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 tables playing chase, shrieking and laughing. 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 the Russians 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, smelling strongly of smoked fish, was a trifle 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.

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 occasion, 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 patterned skirts. She was absolutely thrilled by the experience, her eyes practically throwing sparks when she rejoined me.

“That was amazing!” she said, slipping her arm through mine. “I'm so glad we came.”

“Me too,” I said, laughing. My cheeks ached from smiling so much. 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 missed my honey.

We tracked down the stall that sold giggling candy. Sadly they didn't have a version for vampires, but they had talking gingerbread men (too creepy for me) and enchanted sugar cookies in every flavour under the sun. Roast beef, goulash, treacle tart, plum pudding –- you name, they had it. I just had to get some of the beer flavoured ones for Jason as a gag gift. Amelia bought six different flavours for Tray and even a couple for her father. 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, assuming someone had bumped against me.

No-one was there.

It happened again, a definite tug on my scarf. I reached a hand back to feel around, wondering if the wool had caught on my coat or something. Still nothing. Another two tugs came in quick succession, and as I cussed in annoyance my scarf was whipped briskly off my neck, the fringed ends flying past my eyes too quick to catch. I whirled round to confront the thief and 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 yelping in surprise and then laughing in delight as the fluttering, shining creatures made off with their woolly bounty.

Amelia came up behind me and squealed. “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 hauled on ropes, and the troll braced 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 deep thud, branches shivering.

“Is that Hroth?” Amelia asked, squinting.

“Well, it's definitely a troll. 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 were fluttering higher and converging on the tree. Where they began to land, adorning it with their stolen goods and their own glowing bodies until it twinkled all over.

“Ooh,” Amelia said, turning to me wide-eyed. “I get it. Actual fairy lights.”

A Were standing nearby overheard her and laughed loudly. He had dark hair and brown, smiling eyes. “Don't let the fae hear you say that,” he said, still chortling.

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 real harm to 'em.”

“Sprite lights,” I said, grinning. “Sure easier to put 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. Someone who could fly.

Oh, Lord. I'd been an idiot.

I should call him. Tomorrow. Or better yet, leave him a message tonight.

“What about you?” said the Were, nodding at Amelia 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. “Hm, I'm sure I could design a spell to—”

“Oh, no,” I said. “After what happened with Bob, I don't think I trust you to decorate my tree.”

“Bob?” said the Were, leaning closer and smiling flirtatiously. “Did this Bob do something to upset you? He shouldn't have, pretty witch like you.”

“Oh, er…” Amelia was saved by a commotion to our right.

The Were turned to look and rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Oh, good. The Guise dancers are here.”

A swell of drumming, singing and catcalls announced the arrival of a motley procession. Once I'd registered the first few dancers were shifters I stopped reading their minds, content to gape at the spectacle along with everyone else.

The dancers were all masked or disguised, but that was the only thing they had in common. Their costumes were truly amazing. Some wore men's evening dress, all top-hats and tails, their faces painted black and white to match, and a few of them 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 the heads were wicker either: at least one shifter went past us 'wearing' his own, very real, horse's head. And red velvet mayor's robes, complete with a leather horse's collar covered in brasses as a chain of office. He got a few jeers from the locals and I wondered how much of a horse's ass that made the actual mayor.

A ripple ran through the crowd. Necks craned and arms pointed.

At the back of the precession, just coming into view, a throne rocked and swayed in the air, carried aloft on the shoulders of four brawny men. All I could see of the figure in it at first was a broad set of antlers reaching for the sky, hung with ribbons that fluttered as the throne shifted with the men's steps. As they came closer, I saw the four bearers wore head-to-toe black, the rims of their bowler hats and the front of their shirts trimmed with red ribbons and sprigs of holly. The throne was wooden and intricately carved. Delicately worked vines curled over its legs and back, wooden faces both furred and human peeking out between the leaves.

A chorus of voices cried out: “All welcome the Lord of Misrule.”

The Lord lounged in the throne, one leather-booted calf thrown over its arm and one gloved hand holding a gnarled staff topped with a jewelled and feathered animal skull, and slung carelessly across his lap like a royal sceptre. He wore a sweeping patchwork cloak that glittered with iridescent peacock feathers, mirror-fragments and beads. It was thrown open, revealing leather pants and a silk shirt, both a deep, rich brown. His face was completely hidden by a heavy mask that sprouted those antlers. Painted green with flashes of gilding, the mask was only vaguely human, fur and leaves adding to the otherness of its features. Two deeply-shadowed eye-holes did nothing to lessen that otherness and cloaked the wearer's eyes in darkness.

The procession paraded past and wound its way towards the spruce tree. A cheer rang out as they reached it and the crowd began to shift, 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 fought to stay with her as the Were plunged ahead. The press of bodies swelled forwards, tugging and pulling, threatening to separate us. When the press eased, we found ourselves at the front and the Were congratulated himself on getting us a great view.

The throne had been set down in pride of place at the foot of the spruce, on a small stage that had seemingly materialised out of thin air. The dancers arranged themselves on either side of it. In the crowd, children wriggled and wormed their way forwards through the forest of legs, rugs and cushions tucked under their arms. Spreading them on the ground at the very front, they sat in a rough circle, their rapt upturned faces fixed on the throne as 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. I laughed with the crowd at the fool's antics, booed at the dragon with them, and cheered as loud as anyone when the healer brought the hero back from the dead.

Applause bouncing off the cobbles, the players gave us an encore or three. As they took a final bow, the older children snatched up rugs and cushions, grabbed younger brothers and sisters, and melted back into the crowd. I spotted some dancers slipping in amongst the audience too. Wild fiddle music started up somewhere and the air suddenly crackled with excitement. The crowd shivered and breathed like a living creature.

The Lord, who had watched proceedings with an air of boredom so profound I'd completely forgotten about him, leapt to his feet, antlers held high and cloak swirling around his thighs. He threw up his arms, lifting his staff to the dark sky and roared: “Let the Misrule begin!”

A shout rang out behind us, and another to the right, but I couldn't see what was happening. A woman to the left yelped as one of the Guise dancers who'd snuck into the crowd appeared out of nowhere and snatched her up in his arms. He twirled her and began to waltz her, her angry complaints morphing into laughter. 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.

I shifted uneasily and met Amelia's wide eyes. “Folks are getting wild. Think we should get out of here?”

“Um, maybe.”

But before we could make a move the isolated acts of mischief spread outwards, like ripples from a handful of pebbles cast into a pond, joining and merging and weaving into one. The crowd around us heaved and boiled, breaking into mad chases, wild dances and loud carousing, the misrule spreading until riotous chaos ruled the entire throng.

Amelia squealed besides me and ducked a red powder bomb, clutching her bag to her and grabbing my arm. “Okay,” she yelled. “Let's go!”

Hitching the shoulder strap of my tote over my head to secure it, I looked around for a safe path through the madness. A space opened to our left and I darted that way, dragging Amelia with me. Right into the path of a line of people coming straight at us, singing arm-in-arm and dancing the can-can.

“If you can't beat 'em, join 'em,” Amelia shouted in my ear, tugging me to the side and linking arms with the man at end of the row. I went with it, letting Amelia sweep me along and hoping there would be safety in numbers. But the line broke up and before I could get my bearings the Were who'd watched the play with us 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 muttered. I was spun around too, waltzed by a dancer in a boar's head mask who smelt of beer and musk. Spun again, I fell into the waiting arms of a short, dumpy lady in top-hat and tails, whose black-and-white painted face contorted as she laughed and wheezed. She danced us in a drunkard's walk, barely avoiding the other revellers running, dancing and leaping around us.

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's costume cut in while I was distracted. He grinned at me and carried me off with a lively jig, the bells on his hat jangling in my ears. I was swung into the arms of yet another dancer, my head spinning with noise and motion, and so I was passed through the merrymaking, embrace to embrace, until I was let go abruptly, dizzy and disorientated, to stagger into a pocket of open space.

The noise of the crowd fell away. Bright flecks of light played across my face, blinding me. I squinted. As the world slowed its spinning, the blur in front of me came into focus.

Antlers. A glittering cloak. A gilded mask.

The Lord of Misrule, stretching a gloved 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 all he wanted was a dance.

At least that was one thing I knew how to do well.

Swallowing, I stepped forwards and took his hand. Even this close, I couldn't make out his eyes, deep in the shadow of the mask. That was unsettling. So was the fact that I couldn't get a read on his mind. His grip was firm but not tight though, and he bowed politely enough, careful to keep those antlers away from my face.

My eyes thanked him, those tines looked wicked sharp.

He didn't speak or let go of my hand. With a flourish, he threw his cloak back over his shoulder, slid his free arm around my waist, and we were off.

The Lord was a graceful, responsive dance partner. 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 it was useless. All the potential repercussions ran through my mind in a torrent, like water roaring over a waterfall.

Was this just a dance? Or was it some archaic medieval rite? Was I his for the night?

Because that was not happening. Even if his chest and shoulders were nicely proportioned.

A second idea occurred to me. All that talk of mischief and misrule — was this some elaborate trick to humiliate me? Lord, I hoped not. Just in case it was, I concentrated on not tripping over my own feet and making a fool out of myself. I had no idea what dance we were doing, but it was lively and folk certainly got out of his way. In other circumstances, ones I understood fully for a start, I might have enjoyed this. His hand stroked my waist, almost soothingly, and I managed to quiet my fears and relax a little. 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 floating on a cloud. A minute later I realised that was more than just a metaphor. My feet were no longer in contact with the ground.

I gasped and he laughed. A deep, richly amused laugh. The first sound he'd made, and it was awful familiar.

Stiffening, I peered at his eyes and gasped again. He lowered us until my feet were safely back on the cobbles, keeping us gently swaying.

“Eric?” I breathed, a tumult of emotions expressed in that one word. Hope. Amazement. Joy.

A gloved hand went to the mask and raised it slowly, inch by inch, showing me a smirk I would know in the dark.

“It is you!”

He removed the mask completely and gave me an ironic, sweeping bow. “Hello, Sookie.”

“Oh my God!” I slapped his arm and beamed up at him, drinking in his sparkling blue eyes and messy blonde hair. I could sense his void too, now the mask was off. “I had no idea! When did you get here?”

“Last night.” Shaking his hair into place with a casual toss of his head, he swivelled at the waist and tossed the heavy mask to a waiting dancer. The cloak followed an instant later. “Thank you for the loan, Michael.”

“Thank Auntie, it was her idea. See you snagged the lass, as per 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 back to me. We were tucked behind the spruce tree, I realised, in a relatively quiet corner and as alone as we could be.

“But you said you couldn't get away,” I said slowly. One of the shouting matches had been about that. “What about Victor?”

His eyes became as hard as flint, his smile predatory. “Victor is no longer a problem.”

“Oh.” I swallowed a pang of guilt and looked away.

Victor had been a thorn in our sides ever since the takeover. If he was dead, finally dead, it made my life a whole lot simpler and a good deal of me leapt at that idea. But I hated that protecting me had involved bloodshed yet again and hated even more that in a small, dark corner of my heart, I was rejoicing. Okay, Victor was a son of a bitch who deserved everything he got, but I was afraid of that darkness in me, afraid it would grow the longer I was around vampires.

And being with Eric meant being around vampires.

My fears, however, were not Eric's fault and I really didn't want to start another argument when he'd just arrived. Picking a safer topic I asked, “How did you know I was here?”

Without the bond hung unspoken in the air between us like a bad smell. Shit. Not a safer topic, not at all.

“I have my sources,” he said carefully.

Sources? The Guise dancers were in on this, had to be for Eric to disguise himself as the Lord of Misrule. Michael mentioned an auntie. And Talwynn had known I was with a vampire, and her nephew ran the troupe...

“Talwynn,” I guessed. “She told me to watch the dancers.”

“She is an … acquaintance, yes.”

But how did he know I would come to the night market in the first place? Given my usual avoidance of all things supernatural it wasn't something he could have predicted. “There's more, isn't there?”

“Perhaps.” His eyes crinkled in the way they did when he was proud of me.

That witch, the one who told Amelia about the market in the first place. The gnome who let us in, I bet he was in on it too. I'd been led by the nose all night and 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. Hadn't I already decided I'd been a stubborn fool where Eric was concerned?

The man had just chased me halfway round the world, something I'd been secretly longing for him to do. And that, if I was honest with myself, was what scared me shitless. It meant this thing between us was serious.

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 held 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 cheek, closing his eyes. “This is better.”

I leaned against him and sighed as his arm snaked around me, holding me close. My fingertips traced his jaw and I whispered, “I missed you too.”

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 package peeking out of it. His grin widened and his voice deepened, teasing. “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, that's a Christmas present. No peeking.”

“For me?” he said, with a shit-eating grin.

Mine was wider. “Oh, yeah. It's 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.” 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, Sookie?”

“No, what?”

“Sledging,” he said solemnly, his eyes twinkling. “Tomorrow night. I know the perfect hill.”

“That would be … perfect.” 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 Eric did exactly as he was told.