The Stranger

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Over the next couple days Alice got to explore the different shops and stands in the square, discovering everything from a blacksmith’s shop to a store that sold every flavor of candy one could possibly imagine. Monday was Gabriel and Maya’s day off, and the two had gone to one of the beautiful rooftop restaurants for a romantic lunch.

“He’s just trying to one-up me for the Unicorn thing,” Altair leaned back in the arm chair, kicking his boots up on the fireplace hearth.

Shakra rolled over to look at him, “Or maybe he simply wants to see his ‘city of a hundred spires’ he talked so much about. It isn’t all about you, you know. Much as you might think otherwise.”

Altair made a rude face at her, but he didn’t say anything.

A few customers were browsing the shelves, and Alice could hear the constant stream of chatter coming from the painting on the wall,

“Oy, don’t touch that. Do you intend to pay for that? Be careful now. Hey, I’ve got my eye on you.”

She bit her lip, amused. Hopefully the patrons of the shop would find him more humorous then offensive. One customer, a tall woman with small golden-framed spectacles and curly brown hair, came around the corner of the last shelf, a tall wax candle in one hand, “Pardon me, what does this do?”

Alice smiled politely, thinking that the woman looked like a librarian, “That is one of our Taste-It Candles. That particular one there is chocolate I think. Not only does it give off a scent, it gives off a taste when you burn it.”

The woman raised an eyebrow at her, “so I’ll go around tasting chocolate all day?”

“As long as you’re in the same room as it, yes.” Alice noticed that the woman had put down the candle, in fact, she wasn’t even looking at it anymore as they talked. She was staring right at the neckline of her shirt. Alice’s face grew hot before she looked down and realized the woman was staring at her necklace.

“Where did you get that?” Her voice was strangely intense, and Alice felt like backing up a step.

            “At the jewelry shop here in the square,” she ran one finger down the twist of bone, and was startled to see a flicker of something dark cross the woman’s face. It was gone before she could be sure.

            “I see,” the woman smiled, a hard expression “you want to play it that way, do you?”

            “Pardon?” Alice was suddenly thankful that the desk was between them. There was something strange about the woman’s bright blue eyes. Something odd about the way she moved, in quick darting motions, as if she were about to pounce.

            “Alice,” the woman hissed, “you may know my real name, but you may call me Abby for now. I don’t know your real name yet, but I’ll find out.”

            Altair sauntered over. He looked completely casual, but his shoulders were tense, ready to jump in if he needed to. “Is there a problem here?”

The woman – Abby – seemed to snap out of some sort of daze, looking around the shop as if she suddenly remembered that there were other people in the store with them. “No, no problem.” She looked pointedly at Alice, “I’ll be back, whoever you are. You have something of mine.”

            And with that, the woman turned and marched out of the shop, high heels clicking on the hardwood floors as she went, bell jangling wildly as she slammed the door behind her.

            “Did you know her?”

            Shakra was standing up from her position by the fire, the fur along her neck and shoulders had risen, and her voice sounded worried.

            “No,” Alice said, puzzled “I have no idea who that was. She was really strange.” Absently she rubbed the bone necklace between a finger and thumb. Had the woman thought the necklace was hers? Part of her wanted to take it off, but some inner, stubborn part refused to be intimidated by some librarian-look-alike.

            “Ah,” Altair grunted dismissively, “she was probably just some witchy nutcase who drank too much of her own potion.” He moved back to the armchair by the fireplace, slouching onto the chair with his hands in his pockets, “no big deal. We get weirdoes in here all the time.”

            It was true. But still, the way the woman had looked at her so intently was sort of creepy. Like she was trying to look right through her face and see the muscles and bone underneath. Like she’d thought Alice was wearing a mask.

            “She seemed really interested in the necklace. What do you think, Shakra?”

            The white tiger sat back, looking a little more relaxed, “Altair could be right. Maybe you look like someone she has a grudge against. You never know with witches. She didn’t look any older then twenty-five, but for all we know she could be two hundred years old and mad as a hatter. She might have just known someone that had a necklace like that and hated them. Who can tell? Just make sure if she comes in again that you’re not working the shop by yourself.”

            “I’m not worried,” Alice gave her a smile, “you’re pretty much always here to guard me.”

            “That’s what I’m here for,” Shakra rumbled affectionately.

            The door opened, sending a cool breeze through the shop, and Maya and Gabriel entered. The elf was grumbling, laden with shopping bags.

            “Someone’s been shopping,” Alice chuckled.

            Maya’s face was alight with excitement, “Oh, Alice! You should see this one little shop we found behind the restaurant. It has the cutest blouses and sweaters!”

            Gabriel said wearily, and without any enthusiasm, “so cute…”

            “Hah,” Altair put his hands behind his head, eyeing Gabriel, “sucker.”

            “I’ll show you, here.” Maya snatched one of the bags as Gabriel put them down on the floor with a sigh of relief. “I’ll show you what I got.”

            Alice leaned back and allowed herself to enjoy the surprise fashion show, giggling with Maya when she attempted to do a runway spin and nearly tipped over, gushing over the cute jacket she’d bought, all the while trying to forget the strange woman who’d called herself Abby and seemed to think Alice wasn’t who she said she was.

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