“Huh. Didn’t work.”
“It’s been five seconds.” Alice said.
Pythia folded her arms. “Get off my table.”
“Everyone’s a critic. Now, let’s get gone from this nonexistent tent so we can get out of darling Pythia’s nonexistent hair.”
“Goodbye, you two. Have a nice future,” Madame Pythia said, bidding them farewell as she started to tidy her table of the implements of the symbolomancy.
He led Alice outside, grinning like a loon as he made an expansive gesture over the whole rest of the Carnival, the various tents in different eye-searing colours, the columns of smoke and the strange bendy clowns.
“What?” she asked.
“A whole carnival! No chaperones!”
“Should we go find Nik?”
He pouted. “Why do you hate
“How did you do that?”
“Say two things at once?”
He waggled his fingers. “You press Control, Shift and Minus to
strikethrough text.” His voice when he said ‘ strikethrough’ did a weird echo, like a thousand ghosts in a bean can.
“What’s there to do here?”
“Glad you asked!” He grinned even wider, jumping the gap from shark to piranha in menace. Which one was more menacing? Surely it should be piranha to shark? “We’re going to void some warranties! To the games tents!”
The voice was cool and cold, and cut through the low din of the Carnival. “Welcome back, Spawn of Nursiir.”
“Is that any way to greet someone like myself?” the voice asked, and Alice saw the source. It was an empty ringmaster’s coat, hovering through the air. A mask, with a gigantic grin and three large eyes painted on, surrounded by coiling black fire, hovered above the ‘neck’ of the creature, and a strangely two-dimensional top hat hung in the air above that.
“Hey there, madam Ringmaster sir. Didn’t see you there.” Nik’s brother didn’t quite sound nervous, but definitely didn’t sound at ease.
The Ringmaster laughed a short bark of a laugh. “You always were highly amusing. Did you ever consider a job here, on the Carnival Carnivora?” Her hands were huge and bright red, Alice noticed, and protruded oddly from the ends of her large sleeves.
“Well, I’m busy right now, and I think settling down wouldn’t do me any good, plus there’s my brother to look af-”
The Ringmaster’s arm extended like a gigantic fabric spring, catching Nik’s brother around the chest with her long fingers, and shoved him against the wall of a nearby tent.
“Carnival, threaten him. And his friend.”
The tent’s canvas surface stretched and extended, warping as a massive mouth opened behind where Nik’s brother was being held, gigantic teeth grazing the fabric of his roughspun robe, drawing sparks from the fabric, oddly enough.
“Thaaaaat’s a bit too carnivorous, Carnival Carnivora.” His feet spread, catching two of the teeth with his weird feet-hands, and he seemed to be keeping near-certain toothy death at bay for the time being. She started to move, to maybe help him, or get away and find Nik, or Alan and A Librarian – she nearly tripped as she realised that a number of fleshy tendrils had wrapped around her ankles and feet, sprouting from the ground like some horrifying plant.
“I do apologise for my crassness,” the Ringmaster said, the painted smile on her mask seeming to stretch another inch as it turned back towards Alice. “But your friend here is an interferer, meddler and refuses to stay to work for myself and the Carnival.”
“I am not interested in working for a giant space limpet and its minions!” Nik’s brother half-shouted, frantically clawing at the coiled arm that kept him pressed against the rows and rows of teeth.
It’s the Carnival – it’s one big living thing, Alice thought, as a series of long tongues slid out from between the teeth, reaching for the trapped fortune teller.
With a twist, he managed to slip free from the Ringmaster’s grip, ducked beneath her other hand as it sprang towards him, and leapt past her to land in a roll on the grass of the Carnival floor. Seeing that Alice was rooted, he rummaged in a pocket, pulled out a salt shaker and flicked his wrist, coating the tendrils with a scattering of salt. Immediately, they sizzled, retracting with a series of whining shrieks.
“Get back here!” The Ringmaster hissed angrily, reaching for him with an arm that extended like a concertina, fast as a striking cobra. He barely managed to dodge out of the way.
Alice, however, wasn’t so quick, and the Ringmaster grabbed her by the legs with a hand with clawed fingers as long as her forearm. The Ringmaster wrenched, and Alice was pulled off her feet, held aloft by her legs as the Ringmaster cackled.
“Hey! Put her down!”
“You know what I want in return, Spawn of Nursiir,” the Ringmaster replied, and her other hand tapped Alice on the chin. “She’s so very delicate, and I’m a very clumsy woman. I wouldn’t want something to happ-argh!” Her last word devolved into a shout as Alice bit her finger as hard as she could.
With a strangled curse in a reverberant language Alice didn’t recognise, she felt the grip on her legs released, and she dropped to the soft ground with an awkward thump.
Nik’s brother laughed with sadistic glee. He’d produced a long-handled shovel from somewhere, and as the Ringmaster reached again for Alice, he leapt forward and struck her in the the mask with a clang, sending the master of the Carnival reeling back.
“Good going, Alice,” he said, grinning, “now let’s skedaddle before Her Nibs here ends up getting even crosser.” He pointed away, down a path between tents.
“That way! Past tents,” he said, starting to run. He led Alice into a more populated thoroughfare, glancing around frantically before picking a direction and starting to navigate past the small crowds of Carnival-goers.
“Hey, Alice! Frogman! Over here!” Liz’s shout was accompanied by a sudden pressure on the side of her face, and as Alice turned to see what that was, she saw Ed sitting on his sister’s shoulders. His eyes were glowing, and he gave Alice and Nik’s brother a little wave as they saw the siblings.
“Ah! Just the rugrats I wanted to see!” He turned at a right angle and started to wade through the throng towards them.
“Are you in trouble?” Liz asked eagerly, her eyes lighting up at the thought.
“Oh, the worst of troubles. The Carnival are coming after me like a sapient flesh-eating building version of Marlon Brando.”
“Cool! What’s a Marlon?”
“It’s like a pizza in all ways, except for most ways.”
“There you are!” came the shrieking cry of the Ringmaster, across the bustle of the Carnival. The rest of the merry-makers quickly vacated the area, seeing the bosslady on the warpath, leaving Alice, Ed, Liz and the fortune teller to face her across the empty space between the tents.
“Hey there, Ringmaster. Been a while, hasn’t it?” he asked, grinning like a lunatic.
“You dare deny my offer? The Carnival Carnivora is not a merciful being, son of- what are those creatures doing here?”
“Having fun!” Liz grinned, and the tents around them seemed to recoil from her as she stepped forward. She giggled.
The Ringmaster seemed to be keeping her distance from the children. “Our quarrel is not with you, small creatures.”
“Well,” Liz said gleefully, “we’ve got a quarrel to have with you, servitors of the Carnival.”
“Yeah, be off, you starched slinky!” Nik’s brother was hiding behind Liz and Ed, which took the edge off his bravado, somewhat.
As Liz and Ed advanced, the Ringmaster backed off, growling low under her breath as she hovered through the air, the tails of her coat-body flapping as if in a breeze. The tents themselves seemed to be slowly shuffling away from the confrontation.
“You cannot keep me from my prey, half-scriven creatures.”
“We don’t have to! We bought a friend!”
[Ah, Liz. There You Are,] said Twelfth, emerging from between the tents, a startlingly imposing figure.
“A Lawperson? Here?” the Ringmaster growled. “You have no authority here, thou carved busybody.”
[I Am Not A Lawperson,] said Twelfth. With a slow deliberation, she cracked the knuckles on each of her four hands. [And Recall, It Is On The Sufferance Of The Foyan Order That Your Master Is Allowed To Venture Here.]
“Fine,” the Ringmaster hissed, turning tail and stalking away into the Carnival, stomping off surprisingly well for someone with no legs.
“Bitten any clowns recently, kiddo?” the fortune teller asked his and Alice’s unlikely saviour.
“Nuh-uh! Mum would get super mad if I did that. Dad would laugh, but then he’d agree with Mum.”
“What are the clowns, by the way?” Alice asked.
Nik’s brother grinned. “Come with me, and we’ll see! That rhymed, at least this time.”