As Lewis studied the carnival, his attention was drawn to the people. A handful of them were drifting from the corners of the circus, appearing from the tents, wandering from whatever hiding place carnies dwelling in. They were drawn by the commotion and were eying the strangers with lingering curiosity.
Lewis, looking back at their quick, hungry little eyes, wished there was a more surreptitious way of reaching for his sword. Beside him, he could feel Simon tensing up.
The only one who seemed thoroughly at ease, possibly even oblivious, was Mr. Banjo. “Please,” he was saying, “stay as long as you would like! Enjoy the sights! The sounds! Play some games! Taste the food! Come, friends…” Then he turned and looked as the carnies milling restlessly behind him. There were at least a dozen of them now.
Then Banjo's voice lost some of its syrup. It sounded ominous. “Let us welcome the strangers.”
Suddenly his salesman-plastic smile was contagious. They were all grinning, as if they all knew something Simon and Lewis didn't.
“Lewis,” Simon whimpered.
Lewis gave up on surreptitiousness and just grabbed for the handle of his sword.
A heavy arm dropped across Lewis' shoulders. It was a friendly gesture that conveniently pinned his weapon in its sheathe. Lewis looked up sharply to see a bald, muscular, mustached face grinning down at him.
“Welcome, leetle frands!” he boomed in a thick, accent-laden voice.
Then the carnies converged.
Lewis' senses were suddenly overwhelmed. Everyone was talking at once, demanding his attention. Hands were touching him, tugging at him. Someone was juggling something colorful. A knee-high man was flapping colorful silks at him. A beautiful woman was planting a kiss on his cheek. The heavy arm around his shoulder was forcing him to walk and he didn't know where. He could barely see through the throng of people around him.
He could barely make out Simon's voice through the converser. “Ah! Please don't hurt me! Let go let go let go! No! I don't want to buy any!”
There was a burst of flame beside Lewis and he flinched, expecting to be burned. A toothless man grinned at him, took a swig from a bottle, a blew another stream of fire into the air.
Thoroughly helpless and overwhelmed, Lewis shoved his hands into his pockets. To his surprise, he found someone else's hand in one of them. Instinctively, he pinched, digging into the soft flesh with his nails. There was a brief yelp and the hand quickly withdrew.
Lewis tried to see the culprit but, between the thick crowd and the strongman's arm around his neck, he couldn't turn his head. He felt panicky. He knew he needed to do something fast, to get the situation under control, but it was all he could do to think.
“Stop!” a voice roared.
Everything instantly dropped silently. The carnies cowered, drawing away quickly. As the curtain of bodies peeled back, Lewis saw a woman standing in front of them.
She was beautiful, with regal posture and shiny skin the color of cocoa beans. Her poised body was draped in loose navy that cinched at the waist and her thick black hair was tied back with a gold band. Bangles dangled from her wrists and a large purple gem hung at her throat.
Her almond-dark eyes darted across Simon, searching him intently, absorbing every detail in a matter of seconds. Then she turned to Lewis and he felt himself shrinking back. He felt exposed and vulnerable under her gaze, as if she could see to his deepest thoughts.
“Dees strangers be wit me,” she snapped.
Lewis blinked. Her voice took him by surprise. It was thickly accented but it was also shredded and rasping. It sounded terribly old and torn apart, worn to its very core. It inexplicably made him think of moth-wings and old paper.
“Ah, our lovely Madam Nubescu,” Mr. Banjo cheerfully announced. “Skilled in all manner of voodoo arts and fortune telling. She can tell you your future, your fortune, your destiny, … and your fate.”
Lewis looked at her again and found her still staring at him. “Come wit me,” she rasped.
Despite himself, Lewis shivered.
Madam Nubescu wrapped her thin fingers around Lewis' wrist and he found her strong.
He looked frantically at Simon who looked back with wide eyes. Madam Nubescu hooked her hand around Simon's thick arm.
Lewis glanced around himself again. The carnies were lingering casually at a distance, seemingly held at bay by Nubescu's presence. Their posture reminded him of cats pretending not to notice their prey. Nubescu creeped him out but he figured they stood a better chance with her than with the carnies.
So he and Simon allowed Madam Nubescu to draw them away from the disappointed circus performers and into the depths of the eerily quiet carnival.
“Where the heck are we?” Simon snapped as soon as they were out of ear-shot of Mr. Banjo and his posse.
“And why is it so quiet? Where are the other patrons?” Lewis asked. Other than the crunching of the donkey's hooves on gravel and the flapping of tents in the wind, he could hear nothing.
“We have not had guests in a long time,” Nubescu answered cryptically. “An evil spirit be washin' over dis place. Over all places.”
Lewis was decidedly uncomfortable and the fortune-teller's answer did little to ease his mind. He thought he and Simon ought to pull away and get out while they had the chance but there was something frighteningly irresistible about the pull of the thin fingers around his wrist.
On the edge of the carnival, squatting in the shadow of the cliff, was a worn purple tent. It was to this that Madam Nubescu led them. Lewis barely had time to formulate a protest in his mind before she had swept them through the flap of the tent and into her dimly lit quarters.
Only once they were inside, wrapped in a haze of scented smoke and blinking in the light of fat candles, did she release them. Lewis looked around in a daze. The floor was covered in soft fabrics and pillows. The air was filled with a sharp, herbal smell.
“What's going on!?” Simon yelped desperately. “Who are you? Where is Old- I mean, Knight Peculier? Why did you bring us here?”
Madam Nubescu casually turned her back to tend to a bouquet of burning incense sticks. She touched one of them to a hanging lamp of oil and the lamp began to give off a strong-smelling smoke.
“Jah be heroes,” she said.
Simon started to respond but Lewis reached over and clamped his hand over his mouth.
“No, no we are not,” he explained tersely. “We're just…,” he had to think for a moment, “trying to find our friend.”
“I brought jah here to rest. To recover jah strength,” Nubescu continued, ignoring Lewis. She touched the lamp gently and it began to sway, weaving smoke through the whole tent. Lewis found it hard to breathe with the strong smell. And the smoke was getting in his eyes, forcing him to blink and squint.
Simon dragged Lewis' hand from his face. “Look, you're a very beautiful lady and all but you're starting to make me really uncomfortable.”
“Just starting?” Lewis exclaimed at him.
But Madam Nubescu didn't seem to notice. All her attention was on the lamp that she occasionally touched to keep it swinging. “Jah both be lost, far from jah homes. Jah be seein' much heartache. And death.”
It was a very pretty lamp, glittering faintly in the candlelight. It swayed so rhythmically and the smoke was breathing beautiful patterns in the air.
Lewis tried to answer but his throat felt thick. His vision was growing blurry and his eyelids felt heavy.
“Rest while jah can, heroes. Jah be havin' much journeying still to be doing.”
“Simon,” Lewis croaked out. His voice sound funny to his own ears. “She's drugging us.”
But Simon seemed to have already noticed. He managed one sluggish step toward the door. Then he hit the ground face-first and didn't move again.
Lewis felt the room spinning. It took all of his will-power to simply stay upright.
Madam Nubescu's dark eyes were locked on him.
“Jah be a strong one, mon.”
She was coming closer.
Lewis struggled to call out, to speak, to protest. But the effort was too great.
“But jah only be fightin' jahself.”
Her palm pressed gently against his chest, guiding him to the ground. Gravity conquered him with a jolt and he was lying on the ground. She knelt over him, her palm still held against his chest. He couldn't move. Her eyes were intense and otherworldly. The sea of fabric and pillows around him was embracing him.
“Know who jah be, know who jah friends be … then jah will know who jah enemy be.”
Lewis couldn't fight it anymore. The smoke swirled thickly around him and swept him into a deep sleep.
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