Carmen's eyes widened as she stared at the brilliantly transformed sesame seeds on the bagel she had bought for Acerbus.
"To think, all my life I was eating magic fairy seeds," she mused.
"Well, despite your obvious mortality, you're a pretty magical person, Carmen." Acerbus grinned lopsidedly.
She rolled her eyes. "You must still be delirious. Here, we better get on the bus."
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She grabbed Acerbus' hand and hauled him up from where he had sprawled on the sidewalk by the Bagelry. They hurried to the bus terminal as fast as Acerbus could go in his semi-stupefied state.
They hopped onto a bus, avoiding eye contact with the concerned-looking driver. The bus was nearly empty, so they huddled in a back corner. Acerbus instantly fell into a doze.
She put the diamond key to her eye. Nothing much changed as she swiveled her gaze around the bus, except for an advertisement for the Dead Jazz Society Revue opening that night at Mount Baker Theatre. But when she got to Acerbus' slumped form, something in his pocket flared crimson.
As if she had X-ray vision, Carmen could see it was a slip of paper that read: "By special request of the Fire Queen, you, Acerbus, are invited to the Fire Ball."
Carmen gasped and scooted away from Acerbus from where she had been slightly pressed to his side. The movement woke him up.
"What is it, Carmen?" he mumbled. "Are you alright?"
"You're with her," she hissed. "You've been playing me!"
Acerbus' eyes narrowed. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't lie to me!" she said, louder than she probably should have. She lowered her voice. "I can see it in your pocket. You are working for the Fire Queen. You just want my key!"
Acerbus met her glare levelly. "Will you calm down and let me explain?"
"How can I trust you?" Carmen crossed her arms. She reached for the yellow stop-cord so she could get as far away from him as possible.
Acerbus grabbed her hand and a flash of heat ran up her arm. She met his eyes again; this time his eyes beseeched her. She let go of the cord.
He didn't let go of her hand, and she didn't pull away.
Acerbus put his hands to his face, as if searching for words.
"I used to belong to her court. The Fire Queen's court. I was a spy, a messenger, one of her best. But when I realized she intended to take over half of Faerie, the Earth half that keeps us in balance with nature and hidden from mortals, I knew I couldn't condone that. So I left.
"I hoped she couldn't do it without me spying on the guardians like I had been, and it all seemed to quiet down for awhile. But when I received this invitation a few days ago I knew she had somehow managed to plot the downfall of the guardians. I kept the invite because I planned to try and stop her, even before I met you."
Acerbus took Carmen's hands again and she couldn't help the blush that spilled across her cheeks. If you didn't look too hard at his shark's teeth, he was really very attractive.
"I would never betray you, Carmen," he said seriously.
"Alright," she huffed. "For no legitimate reason whatsoever I believe you. So what is the plan, Mr. Amazing Spy?"
She tore her eyes from his intense stare and, realizing where they were, yanked the cord. The sign dinged and the bus rolled to a stop by Whatcom Falls Park. They thanked the driver and started to walk into the woods.
Carmen's phone suddenly vibrated in her pocket.
"Oh my god, it's my parents!" she gasped, realizing for the first time that she'd been gone all night.
"Hi, Mom. No need to freak, just went for an early morning walk."
"Carmen, we woke up and couldn't find you. Where are you?"
"Just walking through the park. I, uh, won't be back though," Carmen thought fast. "I took a change of clothes and am going to stay at Brianna's house. I just can't bear to watch you pack up the house."
Her mother's voice softened. "Are you sure?"
They were now deep into the woods and Acerbus was motioning for her to hang up.
"Yes. Sure. Love you Mom." She ended the call.
"I hate lying to them, but the ball is tonight and we need to figure out what we're doing."
They stopped in a glade where the trees formed a perfect circle.
"Acerbus, what are we going to do?"
He grinned, took the bagel out of his pocket and put it in her hand. "Wake the guardians."
Next Monday: Who are the guardians?
ABOUT THIS SERIAL NOVEL
Welcome to "Invitation to the Fire Ball," a six-part serial fantasy written by Whatcom County residents.
The fantasy runs July 16 through Aug. 20, with a new chapter in each Monday's edition of The Bellingham Herald. Other chapters are here.
Next January, we will invite readers to write chapters for our 2013 serial story. For now, we hope you enjoy "Invitation to the Fire Ball." Send any comments to Dean.Kahn@bellinghamherald.com.