Chapter One : A Full Course Day

Aricook hurried through the expansive kitchens of his father’s restaurant, but the gleaming tile, mirror shine of copper-bottomed pots, and heady mix of aromas barely registered. He slipped through the crowd of bustling food builders and their assistants and entered the main eatery. The familiar sights and sounds of one hundred and ninety-eight customers chattering like mag-chickens while assaulting the day’s feast failed to ease his worries.

If even Stigand could fall to the Logicals, either they felt their hold over the realm secure, or they needed a desperate gamble to break the Purple Unicorns once and for all.

Either way, they were in for a full course day.

A heightened tension hung in the air like a sauce about to boil over, confirmed by the too-loud talking of the citizens in their market day finery and the furtive looks cast toward the private dining area on the far side of the room. There Ari’s father, Abucook, attended the morning gathering of the lords and ladies of the Logicals.

Ari’s mother claimed he was the simmering image of his father, but Ari found it hard to believe. They did share the same light brown hair and plain, brown eyes, but where Ari’s frame was lean and muscular, his father had finally succumbed to the lure of his own food and was lovingly referred to as portly.

His father excused himself from Aatos and the other Logical leaders and joined Ari. “How are preparations?”

“Everything’s in order. It’s shaping up to be a banner day.”

“What of the soup?”

“Three hundred gallons ready, simmering on the back heat pits.”

“I was afraid of that,” Abucook said with a frown. “I just heard from your brother in the marketplace. They made soup too.”

“Uh oh. I was planning to ship our stock to him.” Once the bidding started, most of the citizens with any money to spend would pack the marketplace.

“Someone missed the pot on this one,” his father said. “On a good day, we’d never sell that much soup.”

“Well today’s going to be a great day.” Ari tried to be positive, but even for his father, the soup wizard of Doruk, selling six hundred gallons of fresh soup would prove challenging.

“Agreed, but it won’t be a great soup day.”

“I heard about Stigand,” Ari said in a whisper.

“It’s a panic move.” His father spoke in the same low voice. “They’re dangling the full chicken on this one, with six companies ready to take the Unicorns when they show up to break him out.”

“Six!” He’d never shouted in whisper before. It wasn’t easy.

“Spread the word. New menu is in effect immediately, but we can’t afford to lose Stigand. You run the news into the market and ship the soup anyway. We’ll find a way to use it.”

“Will do.”

“Check in with your mother. She’ll want status updates from everyone.”

Ari relayed the news to the kitchen and then headed for the outer city gate and the sprawling marketplace on the western plain outside Doruk to bring word to his brother and the other operatives already assembled.

Insurrection was never easy, and pulling it off from right under the noses of the ruling Logicals made it ten times harder. Seven successful raids over the past two months had to force the Logicals’ hands, but the magnitude of the trap left him shaking. With Stigand on the auction block, they couldn’t back away from the fight, but with six full companies waiting to pounce, the daring plan was looking more like suicide.

The Purple Unicorns would either pull off their most impressive rescue ever, or they would be crushed in a single, terrible blow and leave the realm without recourse against the iron control of the Logicals.

Chapter Two: The Color of Clarity

The marketplace was a riot of color and sound and smells that Ari generally loved to explore. The city of Doruk commanded the best pass through the mountains that separated all three of the major realms and as such had become the premier trading center on the continent. The original marketplace had been set up like the spokes of a giant wheel around the central court where special events were held like the day’s auction of Disordered, but time and heavy use had slowly transformed it into a confusing maze of tents, canopies, and roving salesmen.

Thousands of people crowded the marketplace. Doruk citizens rubbed shoulders with tanned merchants from Yuuki in their bright colors and with their ears full of tricks. Ujaraki salesmen in their huge, floppy white hats were in force, and even a few leather-clad hunters from the northern Aspidan reaches passed through the crowd in bubbles of space despite the press.

By the time Ari reached the market restaurant, situated right on the wide central court, the change of menu was already in effect. Leave it to Hacook to anticipate the order. Instead of soup and racks of shaved garlin, the restaurant windows held a full menu celebrating the imminent demise of the enemies of the state.

Eaters clamored for purple unicorn steaks and hot wings, salads in horn-shaped bread bowls filled with purple vegetables and sprinkled with slivered almonds shaped like spiraled horns. The purple eggs and ham were already sold out.

Ari hurried on before Hacook caught sight of him and called him in to help work the long line of waiting customers. He crossed the square, passed the raised wooden platform where the auction would be held at noon, and entered his mother’s bakery.

While Abucook might be the most successful restauranteur in Doruk, Ari’s mother, Maylis, was renowned across the three realms as the premier baker. There were actual sonnets dedicated to her pastries, although Ari found them poor substitutes for the pure, mouth-dropping pleasure of his mother’s confections.

As usual, a throng filled the front of the store and blocked the view of the display cases as they pressed up against the glass counter, jockeying for their chance to buy one of Maylis’ treats. Ari forced his way around the edges of the crowd and behind the counter where servers scurried to fill orders and collect proffered coins.

His mother had taken a terrible risk requiring coins. The Ujaraki had been so furious they boycotted her establishment for an entire hour before breaking down and accepting the decree. One of the great strengths of the Doruk marketplace was that most transactions were made through barter, and coins were viewed as a poor substitute. Maylis had changed her policy out of simple necessity. Her baked goods were so popular it took too long to barter every sale.

Once he was out of the press and able to breathe again, Ari glanced at the display shelves to see if his own award-winning muffins were selling, but paused to stare. The normal riot of colorful pastries was replaced with hordes of uniform brown.

“What happened?” he asked one of the servers.

“It’s the color of clarity,” she said brightly.

Sales were going strong, but the day was too important to tarnish with brown pastries. Ari hurried into the back room where the heavenly aroma of baking confections enveloped him in a full body hug and licked all the way up his nostrils. He found his mother in her customary white apron, hair tucked up into a ghastly Ujaraki hat, directing the work. She was a sitting member of the Logical ruling committee, so it was surprising she had not uncovered word sooner of the plot to capture the Unicorns.

So much work trying to ferret out the Unicorns, so many innocent people denounced as Disordered, and none of them realized his mother, one of their high ranking citizen officers, was the spy they sought. Ari had grown up with her ironclad arguments and dizzying intellect so it did not surprise him she fooled those pompous Logicals and their hypocritical arguments justifying the overthrow of the rightful prince.

Besides, even if they had suspected her, who would dare denounce her and risk shutting down the bakery? Even Logicals were smart enough to avoid those riots.

“Mother, what’s going on?”

“Hello, Ari.” She gave him a warm smile. “I see you’ve discovered the celebration of logic.”

“How is brown the color of clarity?”

“Simple. Our logic considers every angle, every variable, and the result is pure clarity. Just as when you mix many colors together, what do you inevitably end up with?”

“Brown.”

“Exactly.”

Then she lifted from a shelf under the work table a delicate piece of white cake, covered in just a hint of yellow frosting and took a slow, savory bite.

“Wait a minute, I thought you said brown was the color of clarity?”

She winked. “I’ve already consumed all the clarity I can handle for one day.”

“Speaking of clarity, did you hear about Stigand?”

Her smile faded. “They actually surprised me with that one. I need status reports. Spread the word that we move to plan Crepe.”

“I’m on it.”

Ari shoved several of his muffins into a sack before they could be covered in that disgusting brown frosting and slipped out the back of the bakery to plunge again into the thickening crowds. He barely noticed the press as he considered plan Crepe. They had never attempted such a daring move, and they’d need more than the color of clarity if they hoped to pull it off.

So Ari went looking for a Yuuki Magician.

Chapter Three: A Midget and a Muffin

Ari found the man he sought in one of those impromptu open spaces that formed in the organic shifting of the marketplace. Unfortunately Sheld, captain of the Logical enforcement company, was also lingering to watch the show, and Ari’s heart began to pound with worry. Why would Sheld monitor that particular magic show on that day of all days?

A tight circle of spectators had formed around the Yuuki man in his bright orange pantaloons, red shirt, and a jacket with balloon sleeves of eye-twisting green. The magic show had nearly reached its conclusion and the heavyset man with salt-and-pepper hair and a carefully manicured beard made a series of grand gestures and spoke in a deep, sonorous voice.

“Behold, my friends, magics lost even to most of my countrymen! Taike alone bears these wonders!”

As he spoke, Taike began drawing from his left ear a stream of material that looked like softened taffy, the color of clarity. Known officially as alluvia, the glop began pooling on the ground at his feet. Most of the Yuuki magics began as ear flows of one form or another as they bent their will into forming tangible from the intangible. That not-quite-liquid glop was the batter from which they could create a Yuuki object as real as anything formed with hammer or spatula.

Finally Taike snapped his fingers and cried, “Thus do I give my creation life!”

With a flash of light, a whiff of sulfur, and a tiny clap of thunder the pooling magic inflated into the conjured shape. Ari gaped along with the rest of the crowd as a midget little man, complete with brown leggings, tan waist coat, and a little red velvet cap appeared. He carried an ornate flute in his hands, which he raised to his lips and began to play.

The crowd applauded and a flurry of offered goods dropped to the stones at Taike’s feet. Any Yuuki magician could conjure inanimate objects, some of which looked just like living things. There was one magician who specialized in summoning an exact replica of a giant he called a mammoth, but only once had Ari seen higher magics displayed.

Taike should have kept the secret concealed until later, a time when Captain Sheld was not standing barely twenty feet away. They would need that skill to surprise the Logicals.

Right on cue, Sheld stepped out of the crowd, flanked by two other guards who converged on Taike and his flute-playing midget. Ari hovered nearby as the crowd began breaking up. He did not dare directly intervene, but the frozen knot in his stomach grew to the point he should start selling shaved ice. They could not afford to lose Taike, not on a Crepe day.

Taike made an intricate bow. “How did you like the show, gentlemen?”

Sheld grinned. “Fantastic!”

One of the freakiest things about the man was his constant good humor. He loved condemning people to slavery or torture as much as he savored a fine meal and seemed to draw endless joy from life.

Still grinning Sheld added, “Let me see your magic tally card.”

Taike produced the little wooden chit with a flourish. “Just renewed it last week.”

Sheld whistled with appreciation. “Oh, you bought twenty full tallies. That must have cost a small fortune.”

“Only the best for the people of Doruk.”

“Pity.” Sheld’s grin never faded. “New rules today. Old tally cards are invalid.”

As he spoke, one of the guards produced a set of ear locks, slapped them over Taike’s head, and locked them in place. These unfriendly ear muffs effectively nullified Yuuki conjurings.

“But I paid the fees,” Taike protested as his little midget raced away into the crowd to dodge a guard’s grasping hand.

“You should have read the notice posted on the city gates,” Sheld said without a hint of rancor. “Report to the Bureau of Artistic Re-licensing and Fines to pay the renewal fee and remove the ear cuffs.”

Taike made another grand bow. “Of course, my good sir. I will away to Barf at once.”

Sheld laughed aloud, but the same hovering guard cuffed Taike on the side of the head and growled, “Don’t start with that.”

What did he expect? The newly formed bureau was but one of the many new agencies created by the Logicals in their efforts to secure their hold over the realm and control every aspect of the citizens’ lives. The name was terrible and even little children picked up on the acronym almost immediately.

After Sheld moved off into the crowd, Ari approached Taike and handed him a muffin. “Your timing is terrible. I was hoping to offer you a crepe.”

The code word surprised Taike for only a second before his grin returned. “Nonsense, my boy. Just makes the journey more interesting.”

“Are you sure?”

Taike patted his shoulder. “No worries here. You need to focus on the girls.”

“Right.” Time for the tricky part.

He left Taike to find a way to free his ears. The man had never failed them, but Ari still worried about Sheld’s presence. Why move against Taike on that particular day? Lost in thought, he crossed the marketplace to the area set aside for the hunters of Aspidan.

As he rounded one food merchant selling a horrible pottage he had the nerve to call stew, he nearly collided with a blond-haired huntress wearing mahogany colored hunting leathers that hugged her mature figure with eye-popping honesty.

“Careful, Ari. Nearly had to call you out just now,” the huntress said with a mischievous grin. Her gold-flecked hazel eyes threatened to consume his gaze and left him stammering. No matter how often he interacted with Priti, he always felt like a clumsy barn-mucking oaf.

The two of them moved out of the central flow of shoppers, who gave Priti plenty of room even while many stole furtive glances in her direction. Most women wore skirts or full dresses so her form-fitting leather breeches and vest were shockingly immodest by Doruk standards. The cranberry blouse she wore under the vest only served to draw the eye like potatoes sucking up gravy.

When Priti had first arrived in Doruk, she had beaten eleven men senseless the first morning. Most of them had not realized they were challenging her, but once an Aspidan hunter accepted a challenge, there was no backing down.

After those unfortunate men had recovered enough to leave the hospital, word had spread to leave the alluring huntress alone. Only two men had defied that advice. She had beaten one so badly he still used a crutch. Her huge father had challenged the other and he’d fled the realm instead of facing the giant.

Ari shivered at the thought of Theron, her father and leader of the Aspidan hunters, ever challenging him. Priti’s ferocity was a tremendous asset in the Unicorns’ daring rescues, but working with her was like trying to bathe an angry porcupine.

Priti cocked her head to one side, “Are you looking at me, Ari?”

“Of course I am. How can we have a conversation without looking at each other?”

“I mean, are you looking at me?” There was a challenge in her eye that the really stupid part of him was tempted to take up. She teased him constantly, but so far he had avoided the traps and not gotten pounded flat by the gorgeous young woman.

“That’s as likely as you saying you could bake better muffins than me.”

“Who says I can’t?”

Without a word, he handed her one and she took a much bigger bite than proper ladies were supposed to. Her cheeks bulged out around the pastry while a look of pure rapture flitted across her face. No one could bite into one of his muffins without pausing for a second to relish the pure awesomeness.

She shrugged. “Not bad.”

“Not bad? Those are the best muffins in town. Even my mother says so.”

“I could do better.”

“Hah! Prove it.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Are you challenging me to a muffin duel?”

“I . . . ah . . . no.”

“Then you surrender and admit my muffins are better than yours.”

“What exactly is involved in a muffin duel?”

“Throw down the challenge and you’ll find out.”

“Maybe later. Today we have to worry about crepes.”

He explained the situation and she smiled. “Say the word and I’m ready. You should stop by the cages. We have a riot of bunny porcupines and an actual, real live unicorn.”

“Let me guess, it’s purple?”

She nodded, tapped her nose and then tapped his in one of those strange Aspidan signs that was supposed to mean quick thinking or something. The fact that she used the hand still holding the muffin reduced the impressiveness factor.

“Oh, I left chocolate on your face,” she said and leaned way too close. For a second it looked like she might lick the frosting right off, and he couldn’t decide if he was more excited or terrified by the thought.

But she only rubbed one finger across his nose and then wiped it off on his shirt. “There. Better?”

“Except you stained my shirt.” She was still standing so close he could feel her all the way down the length of his torso, almost touching, and it was so difficult to breathe he’d need a waffle to clear his head.

Priti smiled and for a second he saw nothing but the movement of her lips. “Well I can’t wash it out until you take it off.”

How could he possibly respond to that? Any movement might accidentally cause him to touch her and sign his death sentence.

“Priti,” he began.

“Do you think so?” She leaned just a little closer and he scrambled back a step just in time to avoid making physical contact. No way, not by the twelve unbreakable muffin laws would he answer that question. More than one man had fallen into that trap and been beaten senseless.

Time to change the subject. He hefted another muffin. “Can I see the bunny porcupines?”

A distant horn warbled over the marketplace and he realized he had lingered too long.

“The auction’s starting early! I have to get into position.”

“Is the rest of the team in place?”

“Mostly. Have you seen Sisko?”

“You haven’t talked with her?” For the first time Priti looked worried. “Last I saw she was headed for primary contact.”

“I have to head her off!”

Priti pressed her fingers to her lips in the Aspidan sign for good hunting and Ari ran. Sisko didn’t know they’d shifted to Crepe. She was going to trigger the very trap they must avoid at all costs.

He only had one sister. He would not lose her like that.

Chapter Four: Best Laid Plans

The press of the crowd delayed Ari several precious minutes. With such a high profile Disordered to be auctioned on the block that day, everyone wanted to witness the show. By the time Ari finally reached the central court, it was already packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder facing the raised platform on the far end.

Ari snatched a crowd-walker tray of finger foods and began working the crowd. In honor of the event, the normal assortments of goodies had been replaced with fried veal poppers, pastries shaped like hooves, candied spiral horns, and full heads of purple unicorn cotton candy. He tried to rush through the crowd, but people blocked his way, eager to purchase the unusual treats.

A long line of miserable looking people linked together in chains had already arrived and stood on the left side of the platform. A group of high ranking Logicals, including Ari’s mother, stood on the right. At the front of the line of Disordered prisoners stood a tall, skinny old man who bore himself with dignity despite his wrinkled silk jacket and the chains around his hands and feet.

Right beside him stood Sisko.

Unlike the others, she wore no chains but stood close beside the aged Stigand with one arm around his waist for support. A couple years younger than Ari, Sisko was a well-known beauty. She stood just a little shorter than he, with flowing chestnut hair and a complexion as clear and smooth as half-baked buttermilk biscuits. Ari picked up from the crowd that she had helped the old man when he stumbled on the way to the platform and remained by his side. First contact successful.

Stigand had served the recently deceased king for decades and his father before that. He should be serving Prince Serkan whose ill-timed trip to visit his betrothed in Yuuki had given his younger brother, Prince Trair, the opportunity to usurp power when their father died of a fever.

The pretended king immediately instituted his high council of Logicals. Trair pretended to great intellect and hated undisciplined citizenry. They had begun issuing decrees to force people into strict obedience to his idea of the perfect realm, and anyone who spoke out against it or who was caught breaking any of the myriad new laws was denounced as Disordered. Punishments started small but quickly grew to crippling fines, banishment and sale into slavery.

That he would remove even Stigand boded ill for the nation.

Ari forced his anger under control and focused on Sisko. She was not chained, she wore her clogs, and was perfectly positioned. Maybe they could pull it off after all.

The auctioneer stepped up to the podium and read the long, boring decree denouncing the vile Disordered for various and sundry crimes, including rioting, conspiracy against the crown, and the dumping of chamber pots without proper licensing.

“Sentencing to be carried out immediately,” he concluded.

Bidding for Stigand began in earnest and soon bright-colored Yuuki merchants were offering entire wagons of cloth and ears full of glop while Ujaraki salesmen nearly danced with glee from the heavy bargaining. The Ujaraki loved nothing more than bartering. It was the closest thing to religion for them and they embraced it with as much enthusiasm as food lovers diving into his father’s soup.

Even Aspidan traders joined the bidding, which was highly unusual. They offered such exotic fare as extract of dappled rambler and eggs from the woffle-tomb-crawler. Those rare items drove the bidding up higher than Ari had ever seen and the Logicals on the stand began looking nervous. Captain Sheld joined them and they huddled in impromptu conference. Then they pushed Maylis forward and she made an unprecedented move.

“The Logical council bids one thousand gold ducks.”

Many people gasped at the enormous wealth offered.

Others wondered why the Logicals would bid on one of their own prisoners.

The Ujaraki salesmen nearly rioted. They produced long, folded contracts and waved them in the air. The rules of the bidding required the use of barter, not coinage.

“Our currency is built upon measurable wealth,” Maylis tried to explain. “We have nothing else to barter.”

“Then stay out of it!” shouted the lead salesman. “By your own vaunted logic, you can’t break the rules.”

Theron, Priti’s father, spoke before the argument got out of hand. “A barter is not so hard. You have access to the crown jewels.”

The arguing continued and the Logicals looked close to panic but they could not stop the show. Ari realized their problem. They had denounced Stigand to flush out the Purple Unicorns, but Stigand represented the king’s rule and carried decades of knowledge of the inner workings of the kingdom.

Everyone else had realized that too.

Whoever won the bidding could leverage that vast knowledge. It would be an intelligence coup like no other. The Logical plan was back-firing. All Ari’s group had to do was wait out the storm and the Logicals would undermine their own authority more effectively than any attempted rescue.

The Logicals came to the same realization and announced a single final round, by silent auction. Each bidder had to submit their final offer in a wooden box. The auctioneer would decide which offer won. Despite the cries of foul play, the various bidding groups eventually realized they had to play the game so they sent runners scurrying back to their camps for their best treasures.

Ari worked back through the crowd into the open space surrounding the Aspidan hunters and approached the giant Theron. “Excuse me, sir. Where’s Priti?”

“Are you finally ready to challenge?” His voice was like a cast iron broiler getting dragged across the fire pit.

“Ah, no.”

“Pity. She returned to the cages for a bid.”

That suggested a plan, but Priti’s direct approach to confrontation might drive her to something extreme, like charging into the square astride a gigantic whomping-goose-brawler. Ari held no illusions that the Logicals would allow fair judging, but a direct assault like that would just result in innocent people dying.

Plan Crepe needed to go into effect. Immediately.

He found Taike near the restaurant, ear shackles removed.

“We’re going to have to make a daylight grab.”

Taike grinned as fiercely as Priti might have. “My magics are prepped and ready.”

Ari rushed back to the restaurant, grabbed up several items, and pushed into the crowd again. He stopped just short of the front of the crowd where he could remain anonymous and still join the action quickly and fought to calm his clamoring doubts. Always in the past they had moved at night with few witnesses. Stealth and surprise were their greatest assets. In the packed square, none of that would help.

Then the trumpet blared and the final bid began.

Chapter Five: A Bid’O Bunny

With great fanfare each delegation presented their final bids. The Yuuki merchants presented an ornately carved box that alone was worth a fortune regardless of what treasure it might hold inside. The Ujaraki salesmen presented a slightly smaller box wrapped in white paper, while the Aspidan delegation offered a box that was really a delicately fashioned wooden cage holding a brightly plumed bird.

It was an actual laughing pigeon of the high steppes.

The legendary birds were notoriously difficult to capture and unless they were taken exactly fourteen days after their first flight and their under-wings clipped with silver scissors, their mad cackling could drive people insane. When captured properly though, their laughing calls were said to heal the sick and bring peace to the down trodden.

Silence fell across the crowd as the auctioneer opened the Yuuki offering. His eyes widened at the sight of the hidden treasure but without a word he moved to the simple Ujaraki box and opened the lid. He lifted out a furry little creature with soft, cream-colored fur and, with a look of wonder, extended a finger to touch the adorable little creature.

Its shrill hiss of warning sounded like steam bursting from a pressure cooker and its soft fur stiffened into hundreds of little spines.

“Beware the bunny porcupine,” shouted Theron.

Too late.

With a flick of its little body, the tiny monster launched four slender gray spines into the auctioneer’s face. The man screamed and fell back and the bunny porcupine tore across the stage, right through the tightly packed delegation of Logicals. By their screams and wild hopping it appeared the little beast caught most of them with its nasty little spines too.

The Ujaraki salesmen cried foul. They knew nothing of the bunny porcupine and shouted for justice, but no one was listening. The Aspidan hunters bulled through the crowd toward the stage. Sheld, flanked by a dozen guardsmen, moved to intercept not far from where Ari stood.

“You’re not allowed on the stage.”

“You don’t understand,” Theron said. “We must capture the creature and subdue the infected before the contagion spreads.”

“What contagion?” For the first time ever, Sheld’s smile faltered.

Theron pointed. On the stage the auctioneer had stopped thrashing and rose to his feet. His face was swollen and discolored, his eyes had turned milky white and drool dripped from his open mouth. With a banshee howl, he leaped off the stage toward the packed crowd.

Theron moved with startling speed, caught the auctioneer in mid-flight with one hand and smashed a gauntleted fist into his face with the other.

Theron gestured with the limp auctioneer, “Seal the square. No one leaves until the contagion is contained. Everyone infected must be knocked out and cleansed with scalding liquid.”

“That’s absurd.”

As if in response, most of the Logicals on the stage began to howl like animals and pounce on any of their group not yet infected. Then they launched off the stage into the crowd and began biting at everyone they could reach. Ari could not see his mother and hoped she was all right.

Panic exploded through the crowd and people screamed and tried to flee.

Theron grabbed Sheld by the coat, “Seal the square and subdue the infected or lose your city!”

Sheld blew a piercing whistle. All of the six companies of soldiers stationed to capture the Purple Unicorns burst out of their hiding places inside nearby shops and moved to block the exits. People fought to get past, and every exit became a battleground while those infected with the contagion chewed on everyone they could reach, spreading the insanity further.

Theron’s hunters led the counter-attack and beat down the infected with the same brutal efficiency Priti used in the Unicorn night raids.

Sheld shouted over the din. “Where are we going to get enough scalding water to cleanse all these people?”

“Soup works best,” the giant replied.

Ari grinned. It was going to be a banner day after all.

In less than a minute he had sold all six hundred gallons and soldiers were rushing into the restaurant to haul giant vats of the soup of the day out onto the chaotic square. Soldiers shielded the soup staging area and Theron began throwing unconscious infected into the vats of soup, holding them down for ten seconds, and then extracting them and dropping them in a pile to one side.

Ari left them to it and turned toward the stage, but before he could use the distraction to help his sister free Stigand, Taike’s first magics triggered. All of the dozens of purple unicorn cotton candies throughout the square exploded and filled the area will floating bits of sugary delight.

Theron cried, “Beware! Sugar triples the contagion rate.”

As the cotton candy fog settled over the square, the dozens of infected erupted into a psychotic frenzy and overwhelmed the ranks of soldiers and citizens working to pen them in. Many were swarmed under and bitten only to rise again and join the swelling ranks of wild infected who attacked the close-packed citizenry with ferocious appetite. In seconds the entire square became a full-on battlefield with everyone from soldiers to heavyset matrons to children beating each other senseless or trying to chew on each other’s limbs.

Then Taike’s second magic triggered and hundreds of hoof-shaped pastries baked for the occasion came galloping out of the bakery and began kicking everyone and adding an entirely new dimension to the hysteria. Theron and Sheld rushed into the fray to try to restore order and Ari made his move for the platform.

Too late.

Half a dozen guards were already closing on the prisoners. Sisko alone stood defiant before them. And then the same little midget that Taike had summoned earlier in the day appeared and stood beside her.

He lifted his little fists and shouted, “Bring it!”

Chapter Six: A Noodle and A Flute

As the soldiers rushed forward, Sisko pushed the midget behind her and kicked off her platform clogs, which were yet another of Taike’s magics. She slammed the heels together and the clogs exploded into tiny shards that fell in a shower among the approaching guards. Those pieces of glop inflated into hammers that pounded toes and knees and groins and quickly disabled the entire group.

Ari reached the stage but Sheld climbed up first. “I expected more from you, my dear.”

As Sisko backed away, the midget finished freeing Stigand from his shackles, hauled the old man over his shoulders, and started to stagger across the stage. Stigand protested as his hands and feet dragged across the wooden planks on either side of the tiny man.

Sisko paced them. “Stop struggling. We’re rescuing you!”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Sheld said as he advanced on the slow-moving midget and drew his sword.

Ari leaped up onto the platform and hefted a frying pan. “Leave the girl alone.”

Sheld whirled and Ari caught the whistling sword on the frying pan with a sharp ring of steel on cast iron.

Sheld laughed. “You can’t be serious.”

Ari considered the frying pan. “You’re right. That’s ridiculous.”

He threw it at Sheld.

While the captain dodged, Ari extracted a pair of carefully wound lengths of heavy noodle from a belt pouch. He shook out the noodle whips and faced Sheld with renewed confidence.

That gave the captain pause. “Noodle-gong-do?”

“Pastry belt.”

Ari attacked before Sheld could set himself. Noodles whipped out like striking serpents and cracked the captain on the nose, in one ear, and on his sword hand. Sheld might be an accomplished swordsman, but he had never faced a master of the noodle.

As he forced the captain steadily back across the stage under the onslaught of his noodle barrage, time seemed to slow. Ari slipped into that elusive bubble where his entire existence became a perfect unity of body, mind, and noodle.

“I’ll see you hanged for this!” Sheld laughed as he teetered on the outer edge of the platform.

Ari wrapped one noodle around Sheld’s neck and hauled mightily on it, planning to trip the captain and finish the fight. Sheld anticipated the move and with a flick of his sword, finally connected with the noodle and severed it.

With one noodle down, the tide turned against Ari and Sheld fought him back across the stage until he stood just above the raging contagion battle. A final fierce strike from the sword severed the last noodle and Sheld lunged for the kill.

Ari twisted aside, slipped inside Sheld’s reach, and shoved a muffin into the captain’s mouth. For just a second, Sheld’s eyes rolled closed under the explosion of pure awesomeness.

Ari hated to waste a muffin on such a man. He took advantage of the moment to catch one of the flying hoof pastries and shove it down the back of Sheld’s leather fighting jacket where it began gleefully kicking him in the ribs. Then Ari pushed the captain off the platform into the midst of the contagion-infected crowd who instantly swarmed over him.

While Ari fought Sheld, Sisko had leaped atop Stigand’s back on the midget’s shoulders and, balanced precariously there, began playing a haunting tune on the midget’s little wooden flute. The midget’s tottering steps changed to lunging strides as he began to swell in size and he almost toppled Sisko from her perch. She blew three long final notes and his little body ballooned outward into the shape of a huge beast the size of a knight’s destrier.

Ari blinked in awe.

A real-life purple unicorn.

The beast pawed the stage and its golden horn glinting in the midday sunlight. Then it spread a pair of gigantic wings and launched into the air, bearing Stigand and Sisko away with a rush of wind that nearly blew Ari right off the stage.

He laughed, “Did you see that?”

“We saw it, boy.”

He turned and found seven soldiers with drawn swords closing on him. They were not smiling, and he was out of noodles.

Chapter Seven: Throw Down

Ari patted his pockets and fished out the only weapon left to him, a handful of stiff cards with his father’s restaurant logo emblazoned on each of them.

“How about we call a truce and I treat you guys to free dinners? All you can eat.”

They paused to consider the offer, but then one of them glared. “What are you trying to pull, kid? Soup’s all gone!”

They charged.

There was nowhere to go, no way for Ari to fight them.

Priti could.

She descended on the soldiers from behind with a whooping battle cry, wielding a simple wooden baton. Three of them fell before the others even realized she was there. Two of them tried to fight her while the other two backed away with hands raised crying, “No challenge!”

Ari scooped up his forgotten frying pan and clubbed them both in the back of the helmets. Priti finished beating down the others and tossed her hair back. Her golden-flecked eyes sparkled with battle fury and she looked more beautiful than ever.

“Stop them!”

More guards clambered up onto the far side of the platform and Priti moved to intercept, but Ari grabbed her hand and shouted, “Come on!”

Together they jumped off the stage and rushed through the bedlam in the square. They raced through the restaurant and out the back door with soldiers hot on their heels.

“I can beat them,” Priti insisted.

Ari clutched her hand tighter. “Doesn’t matter. They know we’re involved. Time to go.”

“Where?”

“It’s almost one thirty.”

“So?”

“It’ll be enough.”

Ari hauled her around a tight corner and nearly lost her into a tent full of glass baubles. Only then did he realize he was actually holding her hand. He had thought he was scared before, but a chanting litany began sounding in his mind with every step.

I’m so dead. I’m so dead.

They dodged through the press and came upon one of the open courtyards ringed with people packed in to view a show despite the nearby riots.

“Ari, I hope you know what you’re doing,” Priti called as they slowed to push through the crowd. Soldiers closed in fast from behind.

“Trust me.”

Would she kill him or just break every bone in his body?

The soldiers had almost reached them by the time they burst through the crowd and sprinted across the square. A Yuuki magician stood nearby, pulling glop from his ear. The entire square was covered with a thin layer of gray pudding magic.

The guards broke through the crowd and gave chase.

The magician threw up his hands and snapped his fingers to complete the spell.

Ari grabbed Priti, leaped forward, and fell into a roll as the gray glop covering the square bounced upward into the shape of a full-grown mammoth. The two of them rolled off the front leg but the soldiers, who had been running across its back, tumbled through the air to crash down onto a shop full of wrought iron candlesticks.

Ari pulled Priti to her feet and gave her a fierce hug. His fate was already sealed, so why not? He’d wanted to wrap his arms around her for months. Might as well do it before she broke both of them.

Priti hugged him back, her arms strong against his waist. Amid the press and bustle of the crowd, they stood together in a small bubble of calm. More than one person standing nearby gaped at his audacity and looked on him with pity, but he blocked them all out and just enjoyed the moment.

Priti felt so right in his arms. She smelled of leather and high mountain meadows. A lock of her hair had come loose from the braid in their wild tumble across the square and tickled his face but he did not dare move.

After what seemed an eternity, she nuzzled her face close to his neck and then tilted her chin up until her lips pressed close against his ear. She spoke in a whisper that chilled him to the core and set his heart racing.

“I accept the challenge.”

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