In the city of New Lyolean, curfew was at six o’clock, unless you had a dispensation.
Which, sometimes, I did.
I had a card to prove it, like an ID.
Next to the text there was a picture of me from two years ago, when my cheeks were a little chubbier. My brown hair was in a messy bun on top of my head, and my brown eyes looked cheerful. Even the poor quality of the photo didn’t hide my freckles.
The card had my name, Penelope Heather Kowalski, my age, enchanted to update so it now read 26, and my race: human, mixed black and white.
Beyond that there was only one phrase, and it was very specific:
“Curfew Dispensation: Friday and Saturday, six p.m. to eleven p.m., only.”
On those days I got the dispensation for my shows. I was a chorus dancer. However, today was Tuesday, and it was almost six thirty, and if I got caught I was in for it with the city guardians.
So it was because of that that I was hurrying.
And it was the ruckus in an alley that I passed that accounted for why I wasn’t looking where I was going.
I just jogged down off the curb, ready to rush across the street, when someone yanked me back.
Shit, they caught me!
Flustered, I looked around, expecting a guardian. But it wasn't a guardian. As Checker taxi ran the red light, the man who'd caught my hood and prevented me from stepping out right in front of it, stood there glaring at me.
He was in his mid-thirties, with a stony look on his face. Hazel eyes, narrowed. A strong jaw.
“Sorry,” I whispered, and hurried on.
I peeked back over my shoulder at him, but he was gone.
Beyond where he had stood, the ruckus was still happening in the alley.
It was a Touched alley, with clinging mist and broken walls and creepers adding a dash of green in the fading light.
You had to be crazy to hang around Touched places.
I hesitated, then moved back onto the sidewalk.
All around me, the city went on with its business as normal. New Lyolean was not a strange city, in most parts. Art deco style buildings predominated, with some of the ironwork and colored glass of art nouveau adding a more organic beauty here and there.
Cars went from sleek and rounded, to sporting fifties tailfins, to massive seventies-style boats.
Busses and trolleys had real wood paneling, on account of the biggest company was run by a family descended from dryads, or so they claimed.
Only the Touched areas were really weird, and most days I managed to steer well clear of those.
But not today.
What was going on in there?
Curiosity killed the cat, Grandma Mimi always said, and I’d been raised to revere cats.
My natural urge was to flee the whole situation. I’m not the kind to be brave. But something about the hand and wrist that flashed into the beam of light a streetlamp cast into the alley stopped me.
It was so thin.
Belonged to a child.
And whatever was going on in there, that child was struggling against it.
I licked my lips, curling my fingers into fists as I took a step closer.
A muffled whimper.
Pushing myself, I moved to the end of the alley, staring in, my heart racing.
Sure enough: trolls, playing with their food.
Slate blue-skinned, large and hunched, wearing rags--typical of trolls. They grabbed at the small arms of the child, a human or close enough to pass for one. The larger of the two trolls kept trying to cover the child’s mouth with his too-large hand. Or paw, really. Trolls were ugly buggers.
“Hey!” I shouted before thinking.
All three of them stopped, turned to look at me.
The child’s eyes were huge and dark, full of terror.
And now, fixing on me, filling with hope.
The larger troll garrumphed and turned all the way around to face me, heavy body shuffling, lifting and settling, the rags dragging on the ground.
My heart hammered as I met his eyes. “You’re feeling sick,” I said.
The troll’s surprised expression might have been comical, if he wasn’t twice my size and inclined to eat human flesh.
His eyebrows, wild tufty things, knit together and he smacked his mouth open and closed.
The other troll yanked on the child’s arm, eliciting a shriek.
“You!” I yelled at it--her--this one didn’t have a beard.
She rolled her head in my direction, casting it all the way on one side, as if itching an ear on her shoulder.
I met her eyes, my hands shaking, my breathing coming too fast. “You’re angry at that one!” I said, pointing to the larger troll. “He ruined your dinner!”
The female looked down at the child, then back at me, tiny black eyes narrowing.
“That’s right, it’s spoiled! See, that one’s already sick!”
And sure enough, the larger troll puked all over the ground.
The stench was shocking, hitting me like a physical blow. A wave of dizziness threatened to overwhelm me.
But then, the she-troll let go of the child’s hand.
“Come on!” I screamed at him.
He bolted to me, and I grabbed his wrist and tore off, barely looking at the cars and buses as I dove into the intersection, racing away from the Touched alley.
After a second, I heard it: the sound of heavy troll feet running behind us.
I charged through another crossing, pulling the child along.
We had to pause at an intersection as a small truck pulling a trailer rattled by.
“What did you do to them?” the boy piped.
I met his eyes, then glanced behind us--the trolls knocked over a newspaper stand and the owner was shouting.
To the boy, I said, “Nothing. Just gave them a couple of suggestions.”
And then we were running again.
Two blocks down I gave him a shove into a small grocery and kept going.
The trolls followed me, still.
I was not convinced this was a good thing.
It occurred to me that I was horrifically stupid for getting involved at all.
Past curfew and I was drawing all sorts of attention now--and if I survived this, I was bound to get picked up by the coppers.
I was running past an apothecary when one of my pursuers caught my hood.
It yanked me back, the collar cutting the air at my throat.
Utter panic flooded me.
I gave a choked scream, thrashing as the two trolls grabbed at my arms and legs.
The voice cut through my terror like a knife--I knew that voice, and it meant salvation.
“Mags!” I cried.
It was her. She was there.
Magpie stood like a superhero, fists on hips, legs spread in a strong pose.
She was a muscular, brown-skinned woman with black-coffee eyes and mahogany hair. She glared at the trolls like they were naughty children.
They were unimpressed with her, and kept ahold of me.
“G’on,” the she-troll grouched at Mags. “S’dinner this.” The troll gave me a shake.
Mags wasn’t one for talking, at least not aloud, and she simply ran forward, stepping on a crate I’d knocked over with my struggling. It boosted her and she swung her steel-toed boot like an anvil, connecting with the larger troll’s jaw.
The crack it made sounded painful.
His hand on my arm loosened, and I pulled free, but the she-troll’s grip only tightened. My heart rabbited in my chest. Panic coursed through me--almost blinded me with fear. I struggled, but the troll would not let me go.
She used her free paw to swipe at Mags, but Mags was a wasp zipping around a pair of grizzlies, fast and poisonous.
Mags punched and kicked, pummeling the trolls.
The she-troll released me and I scrambled away, abandoning Mags to the fight.