Anna achieved a comfortable routine at Sarah and Kenny's place. Every morning she would make breakfast or Kenny would. Afterward, she would do the dishes or Sarah would. After breakfast, Kenny went out back to work on any number of his woodworking projects, Sarah went to the garden or to her sewing room, leaving Anna to her own devices. That very next morning Anna went immediately across the vale to Michaela's house, in the bright, summer morning sun, with not a hint of fog.
The house was as she expected: quiet, dusty, run down. She walked out back to the overgrown patch before the tree line. There were no stone benches, no careful bushes, and no gazebo.
And that, she decided, confirmed it. The fog was how the house changed, how she'd met Michaela, how the magic happened.
The Copelands didn't expect her back for lunch, so she only showed up if she was hungry, which was rarely. She wandered about town or among the foothills with her shoulderbag, snatching bits of poetry from here and there. Violet had given her some money for the summer, so she drank tea at Coffee Courtyard, and she perused the art shops, and once she ran into Sarah at the fabric shop.
"I didn't know you were interested in sewing," Sarah said.
"I'm not, but the fabric is nice."
Sarah laughed and gave her a lift back to the house for lunch.
She found those days aimless. She wrote poetry, and read in the library, and wandered Glenwood. But it was hard to focus on anything except the next time she could see Michaela. Clouds settled about the mountains of the valley frequently, but for an entire listless week, they did not come down into the valley.
"Are there fireflies in this area?" Anna asked into a quiet moment at dinner.
"Nah," said Kenny. "The altitude is a bit much for them. Also, they tend to prefer damper climates. As I understand it anyway."
Anna nodded. The conversation drifted on, but Anna stayed focused on the spirit lights that almost certainly weren't fireflies. Where they spirits in truth? Was Kenny mistaken?
"Have you got everything ready for the booth tomorrow night?" Kenny asked.
Anna blinked at him, confused.
"Oh sure. Seven quilts packed and ready to go. How are the owls?"
"The owls?" said Anna.
"I've been carving decorative owls for the last few months to sell at the arts and music festival," Kenny said. "You did know that's this weekend, didn't you?"
Anna shook her head.
"There's flyers all up and down Clayfield Street," he said. "Isn't that where you've been spending a lot of time?"
Now he mentioned it, Anna had seen colorful flyers posted about. She hadn't paid them much mind.
"They'll close down Clayfield Street. There'll be all sorts of booths, singing, dancing and whatnot," Kenny said.
"It's a great time," Sarah said. "There'll be lots of kids your age there, locals and tourists, if you're interested."
"Do I have to go?" Anna asked.
"Nah," said Kenny. "You can stay home if you want."
Anna considered. It wasn't that she didn't like people, it was just that she preferred to be by herself or someplace more quiet than a festival. On the other hand she'd spent all this week largely by herself. Not getting to see Michaela made her ache for friendship. Not that Sarah and Kenny weren't friendly, but they were adults.
"I think I'd like to go," Anna said.
• • •
She helped Kenny and Sarah haul boxes from the car to a booth on Clayfield Street. The woman running the booth, Mrs. Mary Walnut, greeted Anna kindly when Sarah introduced her.
"I think you've met my son, Francis."
Anna frowned, she didn't remember meeting a boy named Francis. Then she realized Mrs. Walnut meant Frank. "Oh. Yes. Him and Bertie."
"Yes. He mentioned you. Said you had beautiful hair."
"Oh," said Anna, not knowing what to think of that.
A block down from the intersection, a large stage was being erected. After Anna finished helping Sarah and Kenny haul boxes, she wandered down to the intersection and watched. Folks with large work gloves put together scaffolding and lights and sound equipment. They moved with efficient confidence, avoiding collision with little communication.
"Hey, there she is," said Bertie
Anna blinked and turned. She found Bertie and a pair of girls she hadn't met yet.
"Wow," said one of the girls. "You're right, her hair is really red."
"What kind of dye do you use?" asked the other girl
"Oh, she doesn't," said Bertie. "It's that way normally."
"Wow really?" said the girl. "It's so… vivid."
"I know, right?" said Bertie "I told you."
Anna felt certain she wasn't needed for the conversation but she also knew it would be rude to walk away, so she clasped her hands behind her back and nodded.
"Anyway, are you staying for the festival?" Bertie asked.
Anna waited a moment to make sure someone else wasn't jumping in before she said, "Yeah, I think so. Kenny and Sarah have a booth with Mrs. Walnut."
"Oh, that's fantastic," said one of the girls. "There's going to be dancing and food and some of the boys around here are actually kind of cute."
"Are there cute boys where you come from, Anna?" asked the other girl.
"I'll bet there are," said the other girl. "All the cutest boys come from the city."
The girls giggled.
Anna shrugged. She wasn't especially interested in cute boys. She supposed that would come later.
"Come on. I hear Sweet Stuff is giving out free samples," said Bertie.
She and the two girls turned to walk off, then Bertie stopped and looked back. "Anna, are you coming?"
"Sure," said Anna, at once grateful to be included and uncertain she wanted to participate. The other girls chatted up a storm and she followed in their wake. They made their way a block and a half to Sweet Stuff, a candy store, where a woman with long hair and wide hips passed out yellow brown candies in wax paper. Anna took one, unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth. It tasted of honey and cinnamon and melted slowly on her tongue.
"Good, right?" said Bertie around her candy.
"So, like, what's your story? How long are you staying?" Bertie asked.
"Are you moving here?" asked one of the girls.
Anna shook her head. "Just for the summer. I have asthma and the city air isn't good for me. That's what the doctor says."
"You're sick?" asked one of the girls.
"I'm fine," said Anna. "I just have to…"
"I have a cousin who has asthma," said Bertie. "She has in inhaler and can't run."
"You can't run?" said the other girl.
Anna shook her head. "I can. I just…"
"Besides, the air here is way cleaner," said Bertie. "That's probably all you need. Just stay here for the summer."
"Right," said Anna quietly even as the three of them chatted on, their conversation moving to whether any of the boys would be interesting tonight.
"I'll bet Frankie is all dressed up tonight," said one of the girls.
"I don't know why he'd bother," said Bertie.
"I'm sure he's got someone to dress up for," said the other.
"Oh, come on, I'm just teasing," said the girl.
Bertie shot a dirty look Anna's way. The other girls noticed.
"Oooh. Has he got his eye on someone else these days?" She winked at Anna.
Anna blinked. "I… I don't know what you mean."
The girls giggled and Bertie crossed her arms firmly. "You don't have to act dumb."
"I'm not acting," said Anna.
"Oh, Anna, you have such pretty, red hair," said Bertie, her tone high and mocking.
Anna clasped her hands behind her back and held on hard. "Um, I don't know…"
"Oh please, it's obvious. He thinks you're cuter than me."
Anna blushed and shook her head. "No. That can't be."
"Whatever," said Bertie. "I'm gonna go see if the music's starting." She hurried away, the other girls following.
Anna took a deep breath. It was easier here than at home and she'd gotten used to it, letting it focus her thoughts. "Maybe this wasn't a good idea," she said to no one in particular. She looked up at the mountains in the deepening twilight. She saw clouds gathering, pushing those below them to pour down the slopes. Soon they would settle in the valley.
"The fog," she whispered, remembering her promise.
She went the other way down Clayfield Street toward the river, the hills, and Michaela's house. She waved at Kenny as she passed Mrs. Walnut's booth. He was busy showing off a carved owl to a customer.
The streets were filling with people, none of whom were interested in her, so she broke into a trot, mindful of her breath. As she approached the river, the fog became noticeable, damp around her ankles and a haze all around. She hurried over the bridge and was nearly to the turn when she saw a shadow in the fog.
Michaela emerged from the pale grey haze clad in a purple dress over a collared white shirt. A scuffed black guitar case was slung on her back.
"Vivianna!" Michaela hurried down the road to Anna, smile wide. "I wasn't sure I'd be able to find you."
"The fog just came in," said Anna. "I was coming to see you."
Michaela nodded. "I went to the house on the other side of the vale, but no one was there, so I… It's lucky we met each other."
"I'm glad you came. Does… does Baba know you're here?"
Michaela shrugged flippantly. "Nope. She thinks I'm tucked up in bed, sound asleep, far from the corrupting influence of the festival."
Anna gave a skeptical look. "Corrupting?"
"So, what do you want to do? We could…" Anna thought about her failed conversation with Bertie, then shook her head.
"You don't want to go to the festival?" Michaela asked.
"Well, it's not that I don't want to go, but it's loud and bright and there's lots of people and it's just not really my thing."
"Hmm." Michaela twisted gently, considering. "Well, how about this. Come with me to the festival. I'll stay with you the whole time and if it gets to be too much, I'll walk you home." She held out her hand.
Anna blushed. But she had to admit, the thought to returning to the festival with Michaela made it feel less overwhelming. She thought she could handle snide remarks, accidental insults, and dirty looks with Michaela by her side.
She took Michaela's hand and they faced the bridge together.
In the thick fog around them, spirit lights faded into existence. Anna remembered what Kenny had said about the altitude and fireflies, but she didn't say anything. A summer-warm breeze came from behind, a gentle push on their backs, ruffling Anna's hair, setting Michaela's to swaying, and tossing tendrils of fog ahead of them.
They walked across the bridge and Anna felt a tingle across her shoulders and down her spine. She had the wild idea she needed to hold her breath to avoid breaking the spell. As they crossed, the fog lifted, but there was still a distinct haze: lights had a fuzzy aura, isty eddies swirled about their ankles, but otherwise Clayfield Street was sharp and clear and bright.
As they stepped off the bridge onto Clayfield Street, Anna looked around in wonder tinged with concerned. The street seemed narrower, the paint brighter. She recognized Sweet Stuff and Foothills Books and Vendors Emporium, but it all seemed a little different. The lights were candleflame gold rather than electric white. The air held a hint of sweet smoke. The people wore bright colors in strange fashions: long-sleeved gowns and gaudy rings, tall hats and patterned vests, long-tailed coats and brass buttons. They put Anna in mind of a colorful, fancy costume party. Neither Kenny nor Sarah had mentioned anything about costumes.
Anna looked at Michaela, wondering if the other girl was as confused as she was.
"It's all so… bright, isn't it?" Michaela said.
Music filled the streets. At the first corner was a three-person band: a young man sang of love and strummed a guitar, a woman behind him played a mournful saxophone, another a standup bass. A small group had gathered to listen, drinking from tankards, puffing on pipes, eating from platters of crumbly cheese and cured meat, delicate pastries and icinged cakes, toasted crackers and dollops of jelly.
"Oh, I'm starved," said Michaela. "Let's get something to eat."
Anna wasn't especially hungry, but she nodded anyway. She let Michaela drag her to a booth with a red and white striped awning where she ordered two bags of kettle corn and paid the woman behind the counter with a couple of bills.
Michaela immediately ate a handful. Anna tried just one. It was like popcorn, but faintly sweet and subtly salty. She decided she liked it.
They wandered down the street, hand in hand, perusing booths selling homemade knickknacks and used books and snacks of all kinds. Anna tried to find Sarah and Kenny's booth, she wanted to introduce them to Michaela, but though she was fairly certain she remembered the approximate location, she couldn't find them.
They lingered to listen to musicians. A man with long, wild hair and an accordion sang of pointed satire; a woman with long braids sang of three little birds; a scruffy bald man strummed a guitar with gentle aimlessness.
They wandered all the way down Clayfield Street to where the fog grew thick again, curving like the back of a smooth cave, and the lights of the festival trailed off. Michaela turned to walk back, but Anna paused. She recognized the post office on her left. It was dark and quiet and didn't match the bright festivity. The gas station should have been just a little further off in the fog, and the train station should have been prominently on her right, but she could see neither. Not only was the fog thicker here, but no lights, spirit or otherwise, shone through.
Just beyond the post office, closer than she remembered, was the scarecrow, Old King, hanging upon his post in the dark and the fog, sackcloth face sagging, black button eyes dim, but his clothes were fine and new.
"Vivianna, are you all right?"
"There's something strange."
"About me?" Michaela asked, tone concerned.
"No. About…" she gestured around herself.
"About the fog."
"I have to tell you something, Vivianna. I went to the house across the vale this morning, when there was no fog. There was no one there. It's abandoned."
"Yes," said Anna. "I did the same. There's no one living at your house. No one's lived there in decades."
"So you were right. It's the fog that does it. The way people are dressed here, the colors, the music, everything's so vivid."
"Are we dreaming?" Anna asked.
Michaela shrugged. "I hardly ever remember my dreams and I remember everything about you. But… maybe? Memory can be tricky."
Anna nodded. "I remember my mother." She bit her tongue on the spontaneous sentence. Violet had raised her and the vague memories of another woman were uncomfortable. Nonetheless, Anna continued. "But only sort of. She had red hair, like me. But much paler skin. Except, sometimes I wonder if I remember her at all or if I just made her up. We don't have any pictures." Anna blushed. "Anyway, I tend to remember poems and stories best."
"Well then," said Michaela. "Let's make sure our story is worth remembering."
Michaela took Anna's hand. Anna took once last glance at Old King, the effigy of Ali Clayfield, founder of Glenwood, hanging alone in the dark and the fog. It was just a scarecrow, but she couldn't help feeling bad for him.
They made their way to the main stage in the center of Clayfield Street, threading through the crowd, past colorful booths and fog-choked side streets. All manner of chairs crowded the intersection, long tables were arranged haphazardly. Folk danced in the space between furniture and stage. Upon the stage stood a fresh-faced blond in a black leather jacket singing of upbeat defiance against ambiguous oppression.
Michaela found a pair of plain wooden chairs off to the side a bit but near the dancing. She slung her guitar case off her back and set it on her knees so she could sit. Anna sat next to her.
"This is so exciting. I've never been to a live concert before," said Michaela.
With all the people and noise and dancing, Anna should have felt uncomfortable. This was precisely the kind of thing that made her want to go home and read by quiet lamplight. But she felt comfortable with Michaela at her side. She felt at ease.
A boy in a white vest, with straight blond hair in a page-boy cut, stopped in front of them and proffered a tray carrying stemmed, fluted glasses filled with a pale gold drink bubbling gently.
"Thank you very much," said Michaela, taking two and passing one to Anna. The boy nodded and smiled and moved on.
Anna sniffed at her drink, it smell vaguely sweet but otherwise unlike anything she was familiar with. "What is it?"
Michaela took a sip. "Champagne, I think."
"I've never had champagne."
"So, what do you think?"
Michaela took another sip. "I think I could learn to like it."
"But what if we get caught?" asked Anna.
"We won't make memories being cautious."
Anna grinned shyly, sniffed the drink again, then took a sip of her own. It tasted faintly sweet and faintly tangy and faintly something she couldn't identify. The bubbles fizzed in her throat. It wasn't unpleasant but it was definitely different.
She held her glass out to Michaela. "To memories?"
Michaela clinked her glass against Anna's. "To memories."
They sipped their glasses of champagne. Anna tapped her foot to the music. The next several moments were a dizzying delight of sound and color, light and motion, warmth and rhythm. After another couple songs, Michaela finished her champagne, set her glass on the arm of her chair and stood. She turned to face Anna and held out a hand.
Anna looked up at her. Michaela's long, curly hair fell over her shoulders carelessly. Her white-collared shirt under her dark purple dress gave her a regal bearing. Her brown eyes shone, almost red, in the golden light of the festival.
"Will you dance with me?" Michaela asked
Anna blushed and looked away. "I don't know how to dance."
"That's okay. I can show you."
Anna had never been asked to dance. "I'm not sure I can."
"All you have to do is follow my lead."
Anna lifted her head, blushing furiously. "What if I'm awful at it and everyone looks at us and…"
Michaela laughed gently. "Just keep your eyes on me, ignore everyone else, and it won't matter what they think."
Anna looked at her hands in her lap, one of which clutched half a glass of champagne. Before she could think better of it, Anna drank the champagne in two quick swallows, and set the glass upon the arm of the chair. She took Michaela's hand and let the other girl pull her to her feet and lead her to the edge of the dancing crowd. Michaela took Anna's right hand and put it on her shoulder, the purple fabric was smooth under her touch, then put her left hand on Anna's waist. Michaela clasped Anna's left hand in her right.
The band started another song, big and raucous.
"This one's in four," Michaela said, nodding in time to the beat. "We'll start slow. Left, left. Right, right." She pushed on Anna's waist. "Left, left," then back the other way. "Right, right. Just count with the beat. One, two, three, four. Left, left; right, right."
Despite Michaela's reassurance, Anna felt hopeless and awkward and certain she'd never be anything better than passable at dancing, but she moved as Michaela directed, at least managing the rhythm, letting Michaela lead her amongst the dancers. Her thoughts dizzy, her cheeks flushed, her gaze firmly on Michaela's. And, though she was embarrassed, she enjoyed herself.
For the length of two songs, Michaela and Anna danced. Anna grew warm with the exertion and sweat beaded at her forehead. On the third song, the band played something slower. Anna swallowed and tried to catch her breath. They slowed their dance to a gentle sway. Michaela moved in close so they almost touched, making it easier to look over each other's shoulder than into each other's eyes.
"Can I tell you something?" Michaela asked.
Anna swallowed hard and nodded. "Sure."
"It's about my grandmother. She's wonderful and I love her dearly. She raised me until I was about ten years old. I mean, my parents are around sometimes, but my mother's business takes them away on long trips and I hardly ever see them. But it was okay because I had Grandma Lulu. Then she got sick. She's been in a care facility for four years now. I visit her when I can, but after Grandma Lulu fell ill, my parents hired Baba. Baba doesn't like it when I visit Grandma Lulu. She thinks Grandma Lulu is a witch."
"Do your parents know how awful she is?" Anna asked.
Michaela squeezed Anna's hand.
"I'm sorry," Anna said. "I didn't mean to…" she pulled back to look at Michaela's face, but Michaela looked away. "I shouldn't have said that. I didn't mean—"
"No. You're right. Baba is awful. But I shouldn't complain. I have so many nice things. Everything I need is taken care of by mother's money. I just… I wish she weren't such a bully."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
Michaela laughed. "You're doing it right now."
"You mean, dance badly?"
"Yes. And share a glass of champagne, and come to the festival, and… and be my friend."
When the song ended, Anna said she was tired and they returned to their seats, where Michaela pulled her guitar case back over her shoulder.
"How about some dinner?" Michaela asked.
"I don't have much money."
Michaela found them a restaurant called the Golden Bridge, name stenciled in gold paint upon the window. A sign hung above the door bearing a stylized golden bridge. Inside, it was crowded. Folks stood shoulder to shoulder at a bar on the far end. The mismatched tables were packed. A stage stood in one corner, giving a man enough height to see over the crowd as he sang, but not enough volume to sing over their conversation. A haze of pipe smoke hung at ceiling level, as though the fog had followed them in.
"Um, I'm not sure about this place," Anna said.
"I think I see a free table," Michaela replied. She squeezed Anna's hand. "Come on."
Despite herself, Anna let Michaela lead her thorough the crowd, wending between patrons and staff until they came upon a small square table against the wall, not far from the stage, a pair of chairs facing each other.
Anna sat, grateful to be against the wall so she wasn't surrounded by the crowd. Michaela sat across from her and tucked her guitar under her chair.
"Will this be all right?" Michaela asked, raising her voice above the crowd.
Anna bit her lip but nodded.
After a few minutes of being unable to flag down a server, all of whom were in black tuxedos and bow ties, Michaela pushed to her feet. "I'm gonna go to the bar to get us some food. Will you be okay without me?"
"For a while," Anna said.
Michaela grinned at her before she disappeared boldly into the crowd.
Anna let the conversations around her fill the space.
"Have you heard? The prince has gone missing."
"I heard he took off to marry that girl."
"I heard he was ensnared by the Witch of Puppets.
"The Witch of Money is frantic. Word is she's sent a summons to all wizards in the region. Calling in favors."
"There'll be war. I'm certain of it."
"They're phoning the sky pirates."
"No. Witch Sabina hates the sky pirates."
"The prince's step-brother's refusing to help."
"I hear the Witch of Puppets is on the prowl, skulking through fog, taking out wizards who won't join her up in the wastes."
"Well I hear…"
A newspaper landed in front of Anna. She blinked up at the man who'd tossed it carelessly upon her table, a rebuke upon her tongue, but he was already out the door. She looked at the paper. A giant scarlet headline screamed at her:
Prince Missing! Witch Sabina Furious!
Minister of War Calls on Volunteers
"What is going on?" Anna whispered. She looked around for Michaela. This bright place, almost real, almost what she remembered, had been a lark. Dancing and drinking and wandering the festival had been fun. But talk of war between witches, people kidnapped, wasn't fun or charming or exciting. Anna wanted to leave, but she wouldn't go without Michaela.
Michaela reappeared suddenly, grin wide. Before Anna could tell her about what she'd overheard or show her the headline, the other girl pulled her guitar from under her chair.
"I've got us dinner, but I've still got to pay for it."
"Oh. Um. Michaela, I don't…"
"Be right back."
Anna bit her tongue on her frustration as Michaela pushed her way to the stage.
The man who'd stood there when they'd entered was gone. Michaela opened her guitar case and withdrew her guitar. It had a deep, brown finish, almost purple, to compliment her dress. She sat upon a stool and balanced the guitar upon one knee. Lights were trained upon the stage and they made Michaela glow. She strummed at her guitar, tuned it, then strummed again. Anna couldn't hear her over the crowd. Michaela turned a few more pegs, strummed again, and her fingers danced over the strings. Though Anna couldn't hear her, she knew the girl was playing a scale, then another. When she was done Michaela slapped her hand against the strings. An echoing thump reached her ears.
Those close to the stage took notice. Some payed attention, others turned back to their conversation.
Michaela began to play. The fingers of her left hand slid about the neck of the guitar while those of her right danced upon the strings, strumming a pattern. As more of the crowd took notice and quieted, it became easier for Anna to hear. A quick strumming beat, a bit folksy, a bit rock, as Anna reckoned music. Chords sung over the crowd as more and more quieted to listen.
Michaela ran through the melody, ran through it again, then stopped with another echoing slap at the strings. Carefully, slowly at first, she picked out the melody again, this time without the overlaying chords, and it sounded faintly familiar. When the melody came around, Michaela sang.
I've just seen a face
I can't forget the time or place
Where we first met
She's just the one for me
And I want all the world to see
Anna knew it, of course. It was a famous poem. But she'd never heard it put to music before. Michaela's singing was as powerful as her guitar playing, intricate and precise, it soared over the room, gathered interest, commanded attention. The whole of the crowd focused on the song, some nodding along, some tapping toes.
But Anna didn't notice. All she could focus on was Michaela.
When the song was done, the crowd applauded. Michaela beamed, throwing her gaze across the crowd. When her eyes met Anna's, she winked. Anna blushed
"Are you to whom she sings?"
Anna, distracted, looked at a man with bright blond hair and grey blue eyes. He wore a coat of varicolored patches over a crisp black shirt and slacks. He held a pair of dishes, which he set upon the table.
"What? No. Of course not."
The man shrugged with his eyebrows. "If you say so."
Anna felt irritation rise along her spine. "Do you need something? I don't appreciate being accosted by strangers."
"I have a pair of requests," the man said, sitting in the chair opposite her.
Anna scooched back from the table, skin prickling, prepared to fight or fly.
"Everything here is traded for, sometimes money, but often not. I would like to paint your portrait."
"What? No. Me? Why?"
"Because you're beautiful. You and your paramour both. In exchange, I have brought your dinner." He gestured at the plates he'd set upon the table.
Anna looked at the plates of food. On the first: two strips of steak, medium rare, lay upon a bed of mashed potatoes and stewed carrots and garlic. A pool of brown gravy simmered in the bottom. On the second: a breaded chicken breast wrapped in bacon with thick pieces of asparagus, a mound of wild rice, and a white sauce drizzled over it.
"Michaela said she took care of this. Not you."
The man smiled, but it felt false. "But I did deliver it."
"If you wanted to bargain, you should have held the food until I agreed."
The man's smile turned to a genuine grin. "Perhaps I could borrow your newspaper then?"
On stage, Michaela plucked a few strings, and sang again.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound
"She really does have an amazing voice," the man said.
"She does," Anna said. "And you're sitting in her seat." She handed over the newspaper.
The man took it and stood before bowing, graceful. "And your permission to paint your portrait?"
Anna shook her head. "Not a chance."
He sighed, melodramatically. "I may have been too forward. My apologies, miss. Until next time."
He disappeared into the crowd as Michaela finished her second song. The crowd applauded and Anna returned her attention to the stage. Michaela put her guitar away even as the crowd called for more. She locked her guitar case and slung it on her back before saying, "I've paid for my dinner. I'd like to enjoy it now. Perhaps you'll have me back sometime."
The crowd applauded as she left the stage.
The murmur of conversation rose again as Michaela threaded her way back to her chair.
"Oh good, food's here," she said as she tucked her guitar under her chair.
"Michaela, I think we should go," Anna said, standing.
"What? But, I'm famished."
"There's something strange about this place. I don't think we're… I think we're somewhere else. Somewhere dangerous. There's a missing prince and rumor of war…"
"Vivianna, relax." Michaela gestured for Anna to sit.
Anna bit her tongue and sat.
"I've been hearing some strange things too, something about feuding witches, and I agree it's all very strange and possibly a bit dangerous, but right now we're just having dinner. Please, sit with me a while longer? I don't know when I'll see you next and I don't want you to go just yet."
Anna took several moments to consider. When she was with Michaela, even rumor of war didn't feel too scary.
"Okay," Michaela said. "Do you want the steak or the chicken?"
Despite the man with blond hair and the rumor of war, Anna couldn't escape the delectable smell of food. "I was hoping for some of each."
"Half and then switch?"
Anna nodded. She started with the bacon-wrapped chicken, asparagus, and buttered rice. The chicken was crispy and moist, the bacon smoky, the asparagus tender. A woman in a tuxedo placed a pair of champagne glassed upon their table without prompting. Anna looked at them, then at Michaela.
"I heard about this," Michaela said. "The Witch of Money controls this town. She has a big bathhouse on Clayfield Street. This festival is meant to raise the morale of the citizens since the disappearance of the prince. The champagne is gold because she's the Witch of Money.
Anna shook her head. "We must be dreaming."
"You think it's possible to share a dream?"
"It's at least as possible as feuding witches."
Michaela picked up her champagne glass. "I will drink to that."
Anna giggled, picking up hers. They clinked their glasses. Anna only took a sip. She wasn't sure how the first glass had affected her, but she was certain a second would be too much. To her relief, Michaela did the same.
They ate half their entrees then swapped plates.
"So who was that boy you were talking to?" Michaela asked.
"Wearing the bright jacket."
"Oh him," said Anna. "He delivered our dinner in hopes of exchanging that service for a newspaper and a painting."
Michaela quirked an eyebrow at her. "What?"
Anna shrugged. "He thought I'd let him paint our portraits."
Michaela laughed. "This place is strange."
"Good mashed potatoes though."
"He was very handsome," Michaela said, an odd tone to her voice.
Anna studied Michaela's face, trying to determine if she was meant to pick up on some subtlety, but Michaela kept her gaze on her food.
Michaela laughed. "So it's not love at first sight for you, huh?"
Anna snorted. "I don't believe in love at first sight. Not at my age anyway. I'm only fourteen. If I ever do get married, it'll probably be to someone I meet a decade from now, if not more."
"Oh," said Michaela.
For a moment, Anna was afraid she'd offended her, though she wasn't sure how.
"Was I too blunt?" said Anna. "I don't always realize when I'm being rude."
Michaela chewed thoughtfully, then said, "Vivianna, I appreciate your bluntness. I don't want you to feel you can't be truthful with me."
Anna considered. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"
"Oh yes. I have it on good authority. My mother knew the moment she saw him, that she'd marry my father. They were at someone else's wedding. My father was a friend of a friend of the groom, my mother a coworker of the bride. They were seated together near the back of the reception hall. She says he was charming, kind, and just a little bit shy. It took a while for her to convince him, but she knew right away."
"That's sweet," said Anna. "My… Violet, the woman who raised me. She met her husband, though a family friend. They knew each other for three years before he finally asked her out on a date. Two months later they were married. They never had children of their own…"
"Are you adopted?" Michaela asked, tone soft.
Anna shook her head. "Foster kid. They were going to adopt me, at least I think so, but then Arthur got cancer. He died a few years ago."
"Vivianna, I'm so sorry."
"It was really hard on Violet."
They finished their dinners in the silence of a busy, bustling, boisterous room.
Michaela stood, slinging her guitar case on her back. "May I walk you home, Ms. Vivianna?"
Anna stood. She hooked her arm around Michaela's "You may."
Michaela picked up her champagne glass, so Anna picked up hers. They left the crowded restaurant onto the still-teeming streets of the festival. They wended their way through the crowd, making their way to the bridge, the fog growing thicker the closer they got.
They were a block and a half away from the bridge, where spirit lights danced lazily, when the fog filling a side-street before them suddenly billowed into the main thoroughfare as though being pressed upon from the outside. Michaela and Anna stuttered to a stop, as did the festival-goes about them, startled by the sudden development. Then, like the popping of a soap bubble, the fog burst and a horde of dolls clambered onto the street.
They were varying and mismatched, button-eyed and stiff-limbed, cherub-cheeked and brightly dressed. Baby dolls in frilly frocks and rosy cheeks, plushy bears with shiny fur and stumpy legs, wooden marionettes with vacant expressions and clacking joints rushed the revelers like a toy box spilled down the stairs. Though none of them was more than a foot or so tall, they upset carts and knocked down awnings, turned over tables and scattered merchandise, spilled food and took down people.
"Inside," Anna whispered.
She pulled Michaela to the closest door. But as she did so, she shouldered past a man in a long, dark coat with a broad-brimmed hat low over his face. She stumbled and he fell and though the door was within reach, Anna stopped and turned. He sat hard, one hand on the sidewalk to brace himself. Anna pulled out of Michaela's grip to reach out to him. He looked up at her, but his face was hidden by the shadow of his hat. He was slow to react and the dolls were nearly upon them, so Anna grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him to his feet.
"Watch out!" Michaela stepped past them, guitar case by the handle, and swung it with a broad sweep that cast aside a stuffed bear, tossing it over the panicking crowd. She swung again and a baby-doll with bottle-green eyes thumped into the side of the building. On her third, a warrior with an oversized plastic sword lost his head and stumbled back.
Anna hurried the man in the long coat to the door, jerked it open and thrust him inside.
"Michaela, come on!"
Michaela backed to the door, guitar case at the ready. Anna held the door for several more seeking escape; Michaela warded off the dolls. When there were no others hurrying to the door, Michaela entered and Anna closed the door, throwing the bolt.
"My hero," Anna said.
Michaela blushed. "What about you, saving old men from the lifeless hordes. I could only hope to be so courageous."
From the safety of the shop, the crowd peered through the window at the dolls wreaking havoc in the street.
"What's this?" someone demanded from further in. "What do you think you're doing piling in here like this?" Anna didn't turn to look, but she could easily imagine the irate man's look of surprise as he noticed the dolls filling Clayfield Street.
"The Witch of Puppets," someone whispered.
"A first offensive."
"This'll mean war."
Another minute on, and the last of the animated toys bounced down the street, leaving destroyed festivities in their wake.
"Do you think it's safe?" someone asked.
No one replied.
Anna looked at Michaela. "We could make for the bridge."
Anna twisted the deadbolt.
"Wait, don't." someone said, a woman in a green dress, her carefully done hair askew. "They'll get in."
"Lock it behind us," Anna said. She opened the door enough for Michaela to squeeze past, then followed. The door was slammed shut behind them and the lock slid into place a moment later.
Anna peered down the street after the animate toys. They still swarmed over the festival. Screams echoed down the street. The sound of destruction clattered off the fog. The other way, toward the bridge, was silent.
Michaela took Anna's hand. "Let's go?"
She sped through the haphazard lighting of the sacked festival booths and toward the drifting spirit lights about the bridge. The moment her feet hit the bridge, Anna felt a tingle at her shoulders and knew they were leaving that strange, alternate place behind. They slowed, breathing hard, and stopped at the middle of the bridge.
"I have a suggestion," Michaela said between breaths. "Next time the fog comes in, let's not go into town."
Anna laughed. "You've had enough of magical toys?"
Michaela smiled at her, dark eyes shining. "I think a nice hike along the river would be better. A picnic perhaps."
They walked across the bridge and took the first right, up the hill. The fog thinned gently, making way. They didn't speak, absorbed in their own thoughts. It couldn't be real, of course, Anna told herself. It was imagination run rampant. But Michaela had seen it too. The fog was key. The fog had brought them together and now it had taken them somewhere impossible.
"Do you suppose there's a purpose to the fog?" Anna asked. "Is there something we're supposed to do, or is it just mystical happenstance?"
Several paces on, when Michaela didn't respond, Anna looked at her, but Michaela was gone. Anna looked all around and found the fog had cleared. It lingered at the river, but even there it had fallen thin.