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Ollie hummed a song under his breath. A second later, a heavy fist crashed against the metal frame of his cage.

“Shut up, you little shit, or I swear I’ll—”

“Enough, Garrett, you know the rules!” a distant voice interrupted the guard before returning to plotting or some such.

The furious man gave Ollie a death glare, and what a glare that was. With one eye. The other wouldn’t open and the skin around it was red and all puffed up, courtesy of Ollie’s fire three days before. That was when those ne’er-do-wells had taken them and stabbed Mom, but now he knew she was fine so the thought did not make him all sorts of upset anymore.

The man finally turned and continued walking around in that thing they called doing a patrol. Ollie thought it was just silly. If you wanted to catch something, you needed to hide first. All this walking about and grandstanding? Stupid.

The men who caught him were not hidden at all. They were sitting squat in the middle of a forest like a bunch of idiots with huge fires going so that anyone with sight and more smarts than a roach could find them. They thought they were safe on account of having papers and permits and there being a bunch of them. Just stupid. Look at them standing around and worrying like old hags after church.

Ollie hated them.

Next to him, his sister tsked with a haughty voice. She smoothed the ratty cover they had been given to better warm the little kid with frizzy hair by her side, whom she seemed to have adopted. And never mind that Lynn was barely two years older than the slip of a girl, if that.

They were all young, the children in this cage. They were all casters too. Some had even been sold willingly, like Boulder. By his parents. Others had been taken, like the girl Lynn was looking after. Nobody knew her name on account of not a single word going past her lips.

Ollie thought she might be a mixed blood. She had pale skin but her hair was like Nami’s. So that means taking her would be easier. Those bastards. The anger kept Ollie warm, mostly.

The children used to be cold and hungry but now they were just cold, because yesterday, Urchin had found them and snuck in and given everyone some meat pies. Even the adults in the other cages had not noticed the slippery vampire. Those shackled men and women were black, and he thought they were escaped slaves.

Urchin also told them that mom would be fine. There was this White Cabal mage called Sola who had come to train people in healing magic and she had saved Mom. Ollie thought he was going to cry. Mom was going to be alright.

But now he was still stuck in that annoying cage, and he had also dropped his shoes on the way here to make it easier for people like Urchin to follow so he felt uncomfortable and his socks were wet to boot.

The anger once again made his heart all warm. Wisps of fire kissed the skin of his hand. But he wouldn’t use them. Too many adults anyway and besides, he wanted to see what aunt Ariane would do to them when she arrived, which would be real soon.

Honestly, what were these people thinking? You cannot hide a band of pricks and their kidnapped victims out here in the boonies. Not from mages with tracking spells and a bunch of vampires. These men were just dumber than a rock collection.

The bunch of fools was still arguing about the attack and whatnot and cussing up with great energy. He could hear it from here.

“The prize will make it worth it, the Pyke family has a huge bounty for the two little twats,” a man in a pink shirt and dark beard told the others.

Ollie thought what a fat lot of good it would do them, and good luck with collecting that thing in the afterlife.

“We need to release them, boss, you ain’t seen what I seen. Those people weren’t normal! Even their women started firing at us when we ran away! There was even one who shot Coulter and Bill in the cock!”

“Bullshit, probably just a lucky hit.”

“She was laughing the whole time. Mad people I tell ya!”

“Shut up Francis, no one asked you. We have the kids now and quite a few besides, two more days of travel and we’re going to be rich.”

“Are you now?” a pleasant male voice asked from somewhere on the right.

The camp fell silent but Ollie grinned from ear to ear. He exchanged a glance with his sister who was smiling too. From the darkness under the branches, a man emerged. He wore a perfectly tailored blue ensemble under a bowler hat and leather shoes that looked completely out of place in the frozen mud and dirty snow. That would probably be hell to clean it if that man had been human. Sunk right to his heels he would have.

But that man wasn’t human, not anymore.

As Violet would say, Urchin cleaned up nice. He still looked like some kind of outlaw though. But the kind that robbed rich people with pretty words.

Urchin smiled a sinister grin as he twirled a silver dollar on his knuckles. He launched the coin, which disappeared mid-air only to reappear in his other hand to get thrown again. That was some trick!

Tink. Tink. The game continued.

“Nice trick, asshole, you got another?” Someone asked.

Urchin kept doing the same thing, but he had replaced the silver dollar with a wicked-looking knife.

The others recoiled.

“Who in the devil’s name are you?” the man in the pink shirt finally asked with a voice that was trying really hard to be angry.

In answer, Urchin’s smile widened. Men and women with muskets and mage gauntlets slowly emerged from the undergrowth in silence to form a half-circle around the poor sods. They came from all ages and some looked rich while others, less so. Some wore traveler clothes; others wore a sort of white uniform and some other yet wore winter city clothes lined with frills and fur.

The only thing they had in common was how mightily bad-tempered they looked.

Ollie jumped in surprise when a cold aura washed over him. Melusine dropped from the top of their cage, gave them a gander to check if they were fine, and returned her attention to the front.

The men in the middle were jumping around like headless chicken and squawking at every newcomer. There were a lot of those. Maybe forty to fifty people, more than twice the numbers of their abductors.

It was entirely too much but Ollie could not blame his rescuers for being irked on account of being quite irked himself.

The idiots now huddled in a circle. Most had left their guns next to their packs and the mages among them probably felt the collection of auras rolling around the clearing, each more incensed than the next one.

It did not matter much that they could not grab their guns. It would be as useful as a garden sprinkler on a house fire when she showed up.

Oh, here she was.

Silence descended upon the clearing because something really big was plodding the earth on its way there. The Marquette group now looked on with hungry eyes, like people who came to the circus to see a lion eat its meal or something.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Metis entered the clearing with that proud gait of hers, and to her sides there were two huge wolves! Were those werewolves? By God they were the size of ponies!

The wolves sniffed the air and then focused on the pile of men in front of them. They showed their fangs and thick drool dripped down their maws. What a show that was! And still, not a pip could be heard.

Ollie could still not believe that Ariane had werewolves as minions! That was almost as intimidating as her full battle armor plus shiny spear. And the silence.

That was the thing. The wrath of a vampire was always silent. Oh, they would hiss and roar sometimes at the start but when they got going there would not be a sound. Like when Ariane and Nami were sparring. You could hear the spears swooshing and clashing but that was it. No steps, no grunts, no cries. And that made it even scarier, because they really showed what they were.

Finally, Aunt Ariane spoke.

“You are bold. Quite bold indeed,” the lady of Marquette declared, her voice echoing across the clearing.

Normally she would probably say something witty, or at least try, to but Ollie knew why she didn’t.

Ariane was livid.

Her aura smashed into the kidnappers like a cold front. Even the non-mages recoiled and cussed up a storm.

Ollie turned around when his sister closed her eyes and placed a protective hand over those of the little girl. The kid let her do so, too busy munching on a meat pie to object.

“You might want to look elsewhere, folks,” Ollie warned the others, but it was all for nothing because Melusine had taken a tarp from the ground and was putting it on the cage to block the view. Ollie still managed to hear what came next.

“Which one, Urchin?”

“The man in the red shirt,” he answered with a sinister voice.

Ollie still thought the shirt was pink.

“Very well. This one lives. Dispose of the rest.”

What followed, Ollie could not see but it was very violent and very short. Also, the wolves howled.

The action was to the front of the cage, but its entrance was to the left. Melusine dropped down once more and approached it.

“It’s spelled. The man with a missing eye got the key,” Ollie explained helpfully.

Melusine did not reply. She put her gauntlet against the keyhole and whispered something in their weird tongue. Ollie felt the spell unravel and then Melusine tore the gate open, lock and all.

It made her instantly popular with Boulder, he could tell. The others were a bit more scared, so Ollie stood up first and extended his arms so Melusine picked him up and lightly placed him on the ground after a brief inspection.

“You are a bit pungent but otherwise unharmed,” she observed.

Ollie looked right long enough to see an arm fly off and decided that, perhaps, he should look to the other side instead. He was one of the oldest kids and he was well-acquainted with Melusine here so the others should listen to him because he was the wisest and most knowledgeable man nearby.

“Right! Come on out people, we don’t have all night. Busy busy!” he said while radiating confidence.

Lynn had finally managed to coax the girl up and they were all lifted in the air, checked for defects, and then delicately put down.

“Hello, I’m Boulder,” said Boulder with far too much enthusiasm when his turn came.

“Hrm. Hello Boulder. A pleasure,” Melusine replied with little apparent interest.

Once Boulder touched the ground, he turned his big honest face to Ollie and whispered:

“She said it was a pleasure to see me!”

Ollie was a man of the world and he thought that she did not mean it exactly that way. Sometimes, adults really liked to say things and meant something else and vampires did it as well. For example, when Ariane said: go ahead and try, what she actually meant was: if you do try I will slap your face off.

Life was complicated sometimes.

Eventually, all the children were down and Violet, who was a nice lady with messy brown hair and a really colorful aura, came and picked them up. The mages and soldiers freed the captured slaves and soon, there was a big convoy ready to leave to make camp… elsewhere. Where there was less blood and other stuff on the ground.

As everyone left under the light of torches, Ollie drifted to the back of the line where Ariane was waiting right behind a man and a woman wearing entirely far too little stuff for this weather. Lynn wordlessly followed him with the little girl in tow.

He was not sure where she got the meat pies she kept nibbling on.

Eventually, he found himself looking up to Aunt Ariane who was on foot at the back of the column. That meant Metis was probably having a meal right now. She gave all three children a passing glance before resuming her vigil, looking right and left, and listening for pursuers.

“Is Mom really going to be fine?” Lynn asked in a voice that cracked a bit at the end.

“She will make a full recovery, but she needs a lot of rest and could not come with us. You can see her as soon as we get back to the White Cabal compound.”

Ollie nodded, but he was still a bit out of sorts. As a man of the world, Ollie had to plan and account for everything so he could protect Lynn and Mom until he grew up enough to kick ass and take names himself, pardon his French.

“Aunt Ari, I don’t understand,” he started. Technically Ari was not his aunt. It was just Lynn who started to call her that and though Ari grumbled a bit, she let it go. Now, everyone around thought Ariane was their relative and that meant Lynn could ask pretty much anyone to do her hair.

“Aunt Ari, how could these men just come and take us? I thought they were bounty hunters?”

“They were slave catchers,” she said with obvious disgust, “their job was to go north, and arrest escaped slaves to bring them back to their old masters. Being a slave catcher is legal, but it does tend to attract the unsavory types.”

“You mean they respect the law, but they are bad people?”

Ariane gave him a measuring glance. Ollie knew she would do that every time she was going to explain something a bit hard. It didn’t mean that he was stupid, just that she didn’t know how much he understood. Adults were like that sometimes. They forgot how different they were at five or nine and how much they understood of the world.

“Yes. The people in Congress passed a law a long time ago. It says that any escaped slaves can be recaptured at any time of their lives and if the slave was a woman and she had children, they were the property of the old master too. One thing is that when a black person is caught, their testimony is not recognized during a possible trial.”

Ollie furrowed his brows as Lynn tilted her head and Ari paused her explanation, recognizing that this last part was a bit too complex. Meanwhile, the little girl gobbled the last of her meat pie then dug another half-chewed pastry from the recess of her grubby dress.

“What it means is that what the black person says does not matter to a judge. The slave catchers can just show up and claim that someone is an escaped slave and if the local authorities find their documents convincing enough, they will be taken south and sold. It makes many of the slave catchers opportunist jackals who will kidnap freemen. That kind of mongrel will also take children from the streets of my city if they believe they can get away with it, because what is one more innocent victim?” she finished with a low hiss.

“So, they could come back?” Lynn asks, looking rightfully afraid.

Ari stopped inspecting her surroundings and focused her raptor-like attention on the girl at her side. Then she took Ollie’s and Lynn’s hands in hers. The vampire’s fingers were cold outside the armor but Ollie did not mind much.

“If those specific curs come back, they can start their own religion. As for the other bounty hunters, they will lose the incentive to come after you once the bounty is lifted.”

“You think you can convince our dad’s family to do that? There has to be a lot of them,” Lynn asked shily.

Aunt Ari did that thing again where she didn’t move or breathe. Sometimes, he wondered how she could look so much like a normal person one moment, and so different the next.

“Indeed. I made a point last time and I assumed the rest of the family had understood the message. It appears that I will have to use more… pointed arguments. It pleases me that the first instance of an alliance of humans, mages, wolves, and vampires in recorded history was assembled for the purpose of rescuing children. Now, I will make sure that such an opportunity never rises again.”

Ollie looked at the column on the road in front of him. The carriages were turning into an estate with guards at the front. That was probably their own camp. He did not know yet what would happen to the rest of his father’s family but he assumed that it would be very unpleasant. He thought it strange that he was defended by a monster against the crimes of his own blood. A bit crazy, he judged. That was fine. He was a man of the world and he would make sense of it, eventually.


 

Marquette, three days later.

Lynn raised her hand to knock on the door, only for Ari’s voice to tell her to come in. She closed it behind her and made a beeline for the vampire.

Aunt Ari was sitting in a comfortable chair, with a proper table by her side on which she had placed a few documents and a cooling cup of coffee. The heavy scent hung pleasantly in the air of the small but cozy study. The thick walls were also blocking the humdrum of the building: maids preparing dinner and clerks joking and laughing as they wrapped up work for the day.

The only thing missing were windows, but Ari had a very sensitive skin, apparently.

Ari did not raise her eyes from the doodle she was drawing in her notebook. Lynn knew that she would do preparatory work before she started painting and that was part of it. That also meant that the vampire was not working at the moment, and that was the best time for a conversation between proper ladies. So, Lynn went to the opposite couch and sat herself daintily, smoothing her dress in front of her.

Aunt Ari raised her eyes and put the notebook down. Lynn frowned a little bit as she caught a glimpse of the drawing just before Ari closed it. There were a lot of naked people in it. That was strange, because she was rather sure that it was not really proper.

Ignoring that, Lynn smiled pleasantly and decided to start with small talk. Starting with small talk was a mark of good education. It showed interest in the other party and allowed one to learn about the other and their priorities, or so Violet had said. Also, gossip was fun.

“Are you leaving for Boston soon?”

“Yes, tomorrow in fact. You will be safe while I am gone, I assure you.”

“My dad’s family…”

“… has made a fatal mistake. The man we captured revealed quite a few unacceptable practices and now both the Cabal and we are moving against them.”

Lynn thought gossip would be more fun.

“What about the werewolves? Mom said a lot of things about werewolves when we were kids. She said they were very dangerous.”

“They are. Those who moved in are… well, they are different. A group of werewolves together can police themselves and its members do not suffer from the curse as much. I also trust their leader to comply with my orders. He has proven himself worthy if a little too talkative.”

Lynn did not know what to think about that. Werewolves were dangerous. Many werewolves were even more dangerous. And Aunt Ari was very fast and strong, so they were not as dangerous to her as they were to Lynn. On the other hand, Aunt Ari said they obeyed her and that meant dangerous people on her side, and that was usually good.

“Okay?” she replied, but Aunt Ari frowned.

“Not you too.”

“What?”

“This ‘okay’ thing. The acronym of a purposely misspelled ‘all correct’. I first read it in a Boston journal and now it has spread everywhere, including here,” she grumbled.

Lynn kept silent. She had heard that from a traveling salesman and thought it sounded nice.

“Probably just a fad,” Aunt Ari continued, “something this silly cannot possibly become part of our everyday language.”

Then, seemingly recomforted, the vampire nodded to herself before returning her full attention to Lynn.

“Say Lynn, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Rich, beautiful, and with a good husband who loves me, and I love him.”

“I meant what sort of occupation,” Ari continued seriously.

“Oh. I want to be a mage that tells people what to do. Like Mom.”

Aunt Ari tilted her head, doing that thing again where only a small part of her moved and it gave her the appearance of an animated sculpture. She and Melusine were like that. They moved little and moved slowly until they were provoked. Then they moved too fast to see.

Urchin was not there yet, Lynn judged, on account of being just a bit of a clod. He was doing his best though, and as Mom said, that was what mattered.

“The White Cabal has offered to train you and the other children we rescued when your talents have matured. That will be very soon for Oliver. You should consider their offer as well.”

Lynn frowned because it sounded a bit like a test, maybe? She remembered that mom had said something about the White Cabal being allies, not friends. That was before they saved her life though. What was it she had said?

“Are you not worried that they will, err, poach us?” she asked.

“They will try, just as I know what the Cabal is like and why some resent its leadership. How should I explain? They make a lot of rules and talk a lot, and some find it annoying while I give a lot of leeway to those who… assist me. A wise man once said, it is better to be first in a village than second in Rome.”

Lynn wondered what Rome had to do with anything, but the quote sounded very smart, so she just played along. And besides, she thought she understood what Aunt Ari meant. The White Cabal were a bunch of stuffy dunderheads while Ari was proper and well-tempered and did not insist on Lynn going to bed before nine. So obviously Lynn would want to stay with Aunt Ari.

That made a lot of sense.

“I think I would like to learn from them as long as they do not force me to wear white,” she eventually decided. If they were going to teach her how to set things on fire like Ollie could then it was worth an early bedtime for a while.

Then she realized that the conversation had gotten serious and now she wanted to go somewhere else.

“Alright. I am going to see Metis,” she declared.

“No feeding her ears or she will grow fat,” Aunt Ari warned.

Giving Metis ears was really fun, so Lynn decided to negotiate a bit.

“Why were you drawing naked people?” she asked innocently, “maybe I should ask around if it is proper and if I should do it as well?”

Lynn waited in silence as Aunt Ari gauged her, and as expected the vampire eventually smiled at her antics. She always liked it when Lynn tried to manipulate her a bit.

“One ear,” she conceded with obvious amusement.

“Yay!”

Lynn ran out of the room and picked up Wisp, who had not moved from her spot and was currently inspecting a painting with her sad brown eyes. Wisp was not holding a meat pie, which probably meant a resupply run was necessary.

“Shall we go to the kitchen?” Lynn offered, and Wisp nodded with energy, her dark frizzy hair bobbing along.

They climbed down the polished wooden stairs past offices and to the ground floor. The kitchen was at the back and would serve dinner soon. The enticing smell of stew and fresh bread wafted from behind the door, and the clang of pots went hand in hand with the din of conversations.

Lynn opened the door and was greeted by the massive form of Irma, casually cleaving a pig leg apart, bones and all. The old woman scowled a bit at the intrusion, only for a large grin to replace it when she recognized the newcomers.

“Good evening Irma,” Lynn said with a small curtsey.

“If it isn’t the young lady Lynn. And Wisp! Are you ready to tell us your real name?” the woman asked the diminutive child with a laugh.

Wisp twisted left and right and squirmed a bit, which only gave Irma a throaty laugh. The large woman delicately placed her cleaver on the cutting bench and cleaned her hands on her apron before turning to them.

“And what do you want? It is still a bit early for dinner.”

“I would like one caramelized pig ear, for Metis,” Lynn solemnly declared.

Irma reached for a glass jar and popped the lid open. Lynn soon had a large brownish and slightly sticky ear which she then folded into a bit of cloth. While her back was turned, Irma made a show of sneaking Wisp a pair of small meat pies. The tiny girl rewarded the cook with one of her rare smiles.

As soon as they were loaded, Lynn bowed one last time and ran away with Wisp still in tow.

They snuck out into the courtyard and past heavy doors to Metis’ enclosure. The shack was part of the normal stable, yet everyone gave it a wide berth. Lynn was not surprised.

When she entered, Wisp let go of her hand to climb to her designated crate. From there she would watch Lynn do her thing. Lynn herself was not sure why Wisp liked high places with a good view but that was alright because she sat with grace and poise and her back straight.


The room they were in had a low plank wall surrounding the place where Metis stayed when she felt like it. It had hay and a large barrel of cold water, as well as a ball and a pillow placed on a pole to rest her head. The black Nightmare was present and she recognized Lynn immediately. Her massive frame now stomped forward, bumping her head lightly against Lynn’s chest and pushing the girl back with a small ‘oof’. The horse’s face was large enough to cover Lynn’s whole torso, though that wouldn’t last because she would soon grow as tall as Irma, just you wait.

Metis made that big ‘snuff’ sound, easily picking up the scent of the pig ear. Lynn giggled and held it in her hand.

Metis had her ritual. She would slowly eat half of the ear little bit by little bit with great care, then gobble the rest. Lynn let her do that, and then moved to pour water in a smaller barrel. That took a while because she was still not so strong but after a few minutes, she had a decent amount of liquid. She then went to the bison herb crate and removed a handful of the perfumed stalks, which she threw in the prepared water. She then grabbed a tool that looked like a giant spoon made out of wood and slowly stirred the decoction like Aunt Ari had shown her, feeling like a proper witch.

As soon as she started, Metis placed her head over Lynn’s shoulder and stared, mesmerized, at the strange tea ceremony.

‘Nightmare successfully captured,’ Lynn thought to herself with no small amount of satisfaction.

When Metis decided that it was enough, she gently pushed Lynn out of the way and sipped on her brew. While she did so, she allowed Lynn to brush her, which the girl did with pleasure.

Metis’ coat was strange. It was surprisingly smooth with a sort of glassy quality that other horses did not have. Petting her was fun and pleasant and completely ladylike and Lynn did it until Wisp cleared her throat.

The small child pointed outside, and Lynn realized that indeed, night was falling. So, they had to meet with the others.

The pair of children rushed out and left the Nightmare to her contemplative mood. Outside, Lynn half-coaxed and half-bullied a guard into doing her hair by casually dropping Aunt Ari’s name which never failed. Then, they ran through the streets of Marquette to their designated hideout which was at the back of one of the many warehouses Ari owned.

Ollie was already there, checking a large bucket for leaks. Boulder waited nearby with his large arms crossed before his sturdy chest. Boulder, whose real name was Herbert, was tall and strong for a kid and his own magic made him even stronger for a while. That would be really useful tonight.

“You’re late!” Ollie exclaimed.

“A lady is never late,” she retorted while pushing a braid back. Her brother rolled his eyes and passed the bucket to Boulder who held it without difficulty.

“Yeah yeah whatever. Are you two ready? It’s almost time.”

“Let’s go!” Lynn shouted, excited at the thought of larceny.

Well, technically it was called ‘pulling a prank’ and was expected of children her age, really. She had heard some of the cooks say that many times. That meant it was ‘okay’! Also, they did it to Maxwell who harassed girls and liked to punch people so, really, it was more like punishing the wicked. Therefore it was totally ladylike and the right thing to do and there were no ‘ulterior motives’ at all.

The four of them ran down the street as inconspicuously as children carrying a bucket and an eager expression at nightfall could manage, which Lynn admitted was not a lot. Fortunately, the inhabitants of Marquette were happy enough to be heading home and no one bothered them.

They soon found themselves in a backstreet, the kind that serviced several workshops. One of the buildings let out a slightly unpleasant smell of burnt sugar and this was where the band’s efforts would be focused.

Lynn placed herself facing the back door and Wisp stood by her side while the boys took position behind the opening, so they would not be immediately seen by anyone coming out.

They did not have to wait for long.

A young man stepped out with a heavy gait. He had a squarish jaw, boorish features and he was rather dirty. As soon as he spotted Lynn, his malicious eyes narrowed.

Lynn breathed in and blew air in front of her. It helped her focus.

Wisp clasped her hand and did her thing. Lynn felt her power expand under her friend’s influence, covering the entire backstreet like a cloud. It bumped against three presences. Two of them she recognized while the third was a tangled mess of loathing and resentment.

Then she drew a deep breath in and swallowed the tangle.

The man’s mouth, which was half-open to cuss or threaten, suddenly slackened as his eyes grew hazy. He stumbled a bit before managing to stand like a drunkard about to collapse.

Ollie and Boulder wasted no time grabbing the door. Ollie snapped his fingers and a plume of fire lit in there to illuminate the now darkened store. They went in.

In the meanwhile, Lynn’s focus was on the little ball of hatred in her mind. She held it still. It was a pretty little mess and she recognized some of the strands. That one was wrath against the other regardless of who they were. This one was self-loathing. And that one was envy!

She was tempted to pull on the strings to see what happened. She had felt Aunt Ari do so on occasion. The vampire had made it look easy and quick, but Lynn was not so sure. She thought it could change someone for a long time and she did not know how exactly. It was just that Maxwell was a horrible person and surely… There was this strand pulsing green and sickly. That one was despair. It was buried deep, but it also merged with everything else. If Lynn were just to pull on it a bit more, weaken the red angers and inflate it until it took everything over and drowned them under its thick mantle, perhaps…

Eventually, timing made the choice for her. The boys quickly left the store with a now-filled bucket, which even the strong Boulder had trouble pulling.

“Let’s go!” Ollie whispered.

Lynn let the boys disappear at a corner while slowly walking backward without breaking eye contact, Wisp still supporting her. Then she released the link and disappeared in the shadows.

She caught a glimpse of Maxwell shaking his head with obvious confusion and then they were gone.

They walked to the black side of town without hurry as the ‘deed was done’ and the urgency had passed. There was still tension in the air as they lifted a plank off a wall and slid under, ending in a cluttered backyard where three black children were waiting for them.

There was one plump boy in a blue overall carrying a basket, a girl with shorn hair and a taller boy with a beret and a red bandana.

The two groups approached each other until the tall boy spoke first.

“You got the goods?”

“Right here. You?” Ollie retorted.

The other pointed at the basket they had and leaned forward to inspect the contents of the bucket. It was molasses, thick and syrupy. There was enough sugar in there to produce cakes and pies for an entire street.

“Three bags of candies, two of hush puppies, and two tarts.”

Ollie shook his head.

“Four four and two, don’t try me Moses, we both know that’s the only molasse you will get before April.”

The tall boy shrugged.

“Not my call, fireball. We only got three bags of candies and you know the hush puppies will get bad before you can finish them. I can get you another tart after my mom’s done.”

“Throw in a medium jar of jam and some jerky and you got yourself a deal.”

Moses considered it.

“I guess. Fine. But I don’t have the rest, so you’ll get it tomorrow. Same place, same time?”

“You bet.”

The two groups exchanged the bucket for the basket and soon, both were on their way with Wisp already filling her pockets with candy. Lynn hummed under her breath and considered that this stroll had been ‘most educational’ and ‘vivifying’, whatever that meant. Aunt Ari and Mom spent a lot of time ‘liberating’ stuff from bad guys and keeping it for themselves so obviously that was ladylike behavior whatever they said in front of her. Lynn decided that once she was an adult, she would be the most ladylike of them all. She then picked one of the candies and placed it on her tongue. It tasted quite sweet.

They stashed their loot and returned home, no one the wiser.

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