Call of Water, Madame Tan's Freakshow, book 1
The venue was still closed, but the main room seemed ready to receive the audience when he made it to Le Loup Solitaire later that afternoon. The prep work for the food service was in full swing in the kitchen.
“Where is Lero?” he asked Ivan, walking swiftly by the bar counter. “Outside?”
The bar manager nodded in confirmation.
Asking was hardly necessary. Considering the current phase of the moon, Lero would be spending every spare minute outside for the next couple of days, smoking the fragrant womora leaves.
“Lero?” Zeph shoved at the heavy metal door that led to the small courtyard at the back.
As expected, his friend was leaning against the wall, taking long drags from the dark cigarette in his hand.
“You’re here?” Lero released two tendrils of the aromatic, silvery smoke through his nostrils, aiming in the direction opposite Zeph.
Completely harmless to humans, womora leaves had a devastating effect on Fae powers, stripping Zeph’s kind of their abilities. That was the reason Lero chain-smoked them in the first place—to stave off the effects of the approaching full moon.
“I’m here.” Zeph leaned against the wall, up wind from Lero. “But I need to take tomorrow off.”
“Why?” Lero rolled his head on the wall to face him, his silver-grey eyes focusing on Zeph’s face.
“Personal reasons.” Zeph glanced away, not ready to talk about Ivy yet.
“Does it have anything to do with that girl you left with, last night?” Zeph should have known Lero was perceptive enough to figure things out on his own without being told.
And Lero was right, more than he probably realized—it had everything to do with Ivy.
Painfully shy at first, she bloomed as he got to know her better. It was exciting to watch her open up to him, like a flower. She delighted in all the things he loved.
The time spent with Ivy was not just fun, it was light and relaxing. He wanted just a little more of that before she left the country and was gone from his life forever.
There was nothing wrong with the way he felt. Yet he sensed Lero would find something unfitting about it—he always did—so Zeph kept quiet, kicking a small rock up the pavement instead of a reply.
“She responded to my singing,” he finally said.
“All humans do…to some extent.”
They did. Not all humans were the same, though. Their response varied in its intensity. Ivy felt strongly, making him wonder what would happen if he managed to unleash the full potential of her emotions. Her passion.
Part of him wished to be swept away with her feelings and let it all happen, not worrying about consequences for once.
“I like her.”
“The better reason to stay away from her,” Lero retorted. “For the sake of both of you, Zeph, turn down your charm and let the girl go.”
As if it were that simple to “turn the charm down.” There was no off switch on who he was.
Clenching his jaw so tight it hurt, Zeph kept quiet for a few moments.
“Be careful.” Lero grimly took another drag of his cigarette.
“You know I am, but Ivy is not a threat,” Zeph muttered shaking his head, then remembered the other encounter. “I think I saw bracks last night. At least four of them, maybe more.”
“Where?” Lero straightened his back, pushing away from the wall.
“Less than a ten-minute walk from here.”
His dark, thick eyebrows drawn into a frown, Lero seemed to consider this new information for a moment.
“How do you know it was them?” he finally asked. “You’ve never seen one before. Are you sure?”
True, this was Zeph’s first encounter, but he’d heard so many warnings from Lero throughout his life, complete with detailed descriptions, that he could be reasonably certain now. The moment he realized that the large figures accosting Ivy and him last night might not be mere humans, he thought it was wise to retreat, relieved when they didn’t follow.
“I think that’s what they were,” he replied. “Bald, huge. I got a better look at one of them. He had a tattoo around his neck and down his arm, just like you’ve described.”
“Still, could be a human.” Lero’s frown didn’t ease.
“The tattoo glowed red in the dark.”
Lero’s chest rose with a sharp inhalation of air as he tossed the butt of his cigarette into a nearby can.
“Ghata’s mark,” he spat through his teeth.
“What does she want? Why are they here?”
“That I wish to know. This city is mine. As long as you and I remain here, we are supposed to stay safe. If things have changed, I was not informed.” He opened the side of his custom-made suit jacket, getting a new cigarette out from the chest pocket. It trembled slightly in his fingers.
“Well, maybe that’s what they came here for?” Zeph offered. “To inform you of some changes?”
“Then why stalk you, instead of coming to me?”
“Maybe that’s what they’ll do next? Come to you?”
Lero nodded, lighting the cigarette.
“Whatever it is that Ghata wants, her business is with me. She can’t touch you.” Taking a long pull at the cigarette, he leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes for a moment, as if letting the calmness of the womora spread through his system while its smoke permeated his lungs. “Still, you need to be careful, Zeph.”
“I told you I am.” Zeph appreciated Lero’s concern for his wellbeing, however the decades of listening to the same old warnings made them sound more like nagging at this point.
“Why do you need a day off tomorrow?” Lero opened his eyes, nailing him to the spot with his questioning gaze once again.
“I said it’s personal.” Zeph shifted uncomfortably. “Since when do I have to tell you how I’m planning to spend my days off.”
“Since you were six years old,” Lero deadpanned.
“Lero, I’m no longer six.” Zeph huffed, his patience wearing thin. “I’m forty-seven, for fuck’s sake, which would be a very mature age for a human, you know.”
“For a human.” Lero’s voice hardened to granite. “Not for us. I am twice your age, and you act barely half of yours,” he pronounced every word slowly, loading it with weight and meaning. “So, when I ask you to listen to me, you do it. Especially now that bracks are in the area, for whatever fucking reason!”
A flash of the afternoon sun appeared to reach into the dark court, reflecting blood red in Lero’s glare.
“Do you understand, Zeph? Ghata knows I care about you. I don’t want anything to happen to you because she may get the idea to use you against me. Is that clear?”
“Yes.” Zeph didn’t mean for his reply to sound as harsh as it did, but the irritation at limits being imposed on him got the worse of him. “I’ll be careful. Promise.” He made an effort to soften his voice this time.
“Are you planning to spend tomorrow with that girl?”
“Her name is Ivy,” Zeph muttered, raking his fingers through his hair. “And yes. I’m meeting her at noon.”
“She is a human.”
“Of course she is!” The irritation flared up again. “What else could she be? There are no Fae girls, are there?”
“Not in this world,” Lero conceded. “But a human female would never be a suitable partner for a Fae.”
“Well,” Zeph let the sarcasm instill his voice, “Since the pickings are slim in terms of Fae partners here—”
“I mean it, Zeph,” Lero interrupted gruffly. “Humans live much shorter lives. And they are just…” He winced. “Much weaker, in every sense. There aren’t many of them—if any at all—that would be capable of dealing with the challenges of spending a lifetime with us.”
These kind of warnings Zeph had been hearing ever since he had brought home a girl from his high school and introduced her to Lero as his girlfriend. Impeccably polite while she was there, Lero nearly lost it once she’d left after dinner.
Humans were weaker, physically and emotionally, Lero had passionately explained to him then. Most did not allow in their minds for a possibility of sentient beings other than themselves populating their world. And in a way, they were right—Zeph and Lero were not of this world. Technically, they did not belong here at all.
They came when Zeph was six, taking refuge here more than four decades ago. Zeph was an orphan, with nowhere to go, and Lero was on the run from the consequences of a murderous rampage he might have taken part in during a fit of Moon Madness.
Once Fae left Nerifir—their world—there was no way back. Bracks were the only species capable of travelling between the dimensions. And even then, they would never make it to the same time and place twice. The two worlds shifted constantly, finding new touching points and abandoning others, making it impossible to come back to the same “what” and “when” that one had left behind.
Zeph and Lero were stuck on Earth now for the remainder of their five-hundred-year lifespans, with no chance of finding a Fae life partner. And with humans being as fragile as they were, the hope of any female companion was slim to none. There was just too much risk. Even sex with Fae could be deadly for humans, especially, if the male forgot himself for a moment, lost in lust and ecstasy.
To be safe, there had to be a certain distance in contact with humans. Zeph knew that. No matter how close he wanted to be with a woman sometimes, he always held back. He’d never spent more than a night with a girl. Every movement during sex was measured and controlled.
“There won’t be anything long-term with Ivy,” he assured Lero. “She is leaving in a week. It won’t last longer than that.”
His own words pinched his heart with sadness, and he stilled his next breath, lest it hurt more.
“Do not take her out to eat tomorrow,” Lero wouldn’t quit.
“I’m taking her out on a date, Lero,” he snapped in frustration. “Come on. How am I supposed to stay away from restaurants? In Paris?”
Lero puffed out a stream of smoke over his shoulder before facing him again, his gaze hard and cold as steel. Unyielding.
“Find a way, Zeph. Or I swear, I’ll lock you in my cage for a week until she leaves.”
“Yeah?” Zeph snapped, losing his patience. “And what are you going to do without that cage, two days from now?”
Tossing his barely touched cigarette aside, Lero grabbed Zeph by his shoulders, giving him a shake that would break a human in half.
“Promise me,” he gritted through his teeth, the earthy-sweet fragrance of womora on his breath, “you will not eat anything outside of Le Loup Solitaire. The only food I guarantee is safe is the one prepared here.”
Zeph met Lero’s glare with one of his own.
“It’s nearly opening time.” He shrugged a shoulder out of Lero’s grip. “I need to go on the stage soon.” He turned to leave.
“Zeph,” Lero called behind him. “You know there are things from Nerifir that would mess you up if you consume them. Not all of the effects are temporary or reversible, either. I honestly have no idea what Ghata has access to.”
Hand on the door handle, Zeph threw a glance back over his shoulder, catching the sight of Lero’s trembling fingers as he reached for another cigarette. Compassion tugged at his heart. Lero had two more days of this struggle ahead of him. And it would only get worse before it got better.
“All right.” His voice softened as the irritation at his friend ebbed. Deep inside, he’d always known Lero pushed because he cared. It just often felt that he still treated Zeph as if he remained that six-year-old boy Lero had found abandoned and alone one cold morning in Nerifir. “Fine. I won’t take her out to eat. I’ll cook something at home, instead. Happy, now?”
“I’ll be much happier, once Ghata gets her goons out of my city,” Lero growled. Yet his expression relaxed somewhat at Zeph’s words. With another drag at his cigarette, he leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes. “Go now. I’ll come back in after this one.”
“Stay as long as you need,” Zeph said quietly, closing the door behind him.
* * *
Staying focused didn’t prove easy tonight. Even the music did not merge with his whole being the way it usually did when he sang.
Thankfully, songs tended to become an extension of him. The lyrics flowed on their own, and his voice stayed on tune without requiring much of his mental focus.
Letting his subconscious lead his performance had side effects, he realized, suddenly finding himself singing The Way You Look Tonight.
Unsurprisingly, his thoughts snapped back to last night for the millionth time since he walked Ivy to the metro station earlier today.
He wondered if his sheets would still hold her sweet feminine scent when he got home later tonight, and how exciting it would be to have her in them again tomorrow. He moved his gaze along the faces around the tables in the audience, as if she would still be there.
An elderly couple was sitting at the table she had last night. They held hands, their eyes on him, their expressions wistful and tender.
Staring at the couple’s linked hands on top of the table cloth, he wondered how long they had been together. Were they from Paris? From somewhere else in France, or in the world? Were they here on holidays? Celebrating an anniversary, maybe?
What was it like to have someone in life, every step of the way, closer than he could ever be to anyone?
He remembered Amelie, the woman Lero had brought home once. Zeph was eight, maybe nine then, still learning to read in English. Amelie brought him an English children’s book as a gift and taught him how to pronounce a few words he didn’t know.
He liked her, but even more so he liked the tenderness in Lero’s eyes whenever his friend looked at her.
Less than two weeks later though, Lero told him that Amelie wouldn’t be coming by anymore. Zeph had never seen another woman with Lero since. Whatever had happened between them, Zeph understood that Lero might be speaking from experience when warning him against getting too intimate with a human female.
There were a number of things about Fae that could be deadly to a delicate, vulnerable girl like Ivy. Yet he simply did not have it in him to part with her for good yet.
Just for a few more days. She’d be gone soon, anyway.
He was confident he could control himself around her for a week. Her company was worth the self-restraint.
While finishing the song, he allowed his memory to bring up the images of her wavy, pink-blue hair.
The two round dimples that popped up high on her cheekbones whenever she was relaxed enough to smile wide and free.
The wonder and adoration that floated in her huge moss-green eyes when she listened to his singing…
The sensation of her silky skin, lathered with bubble bath…
The way she moaned, arching her back as he played her body like the most exquisite instrument he had ever held in his hands…
The song ended, allowing Zeph to flee the stage before any further memories stretched his pants with an erection too obvious to conceal.
Heading straight to the bar, he poured himself a glass of white wine, feeling suddenly parched.
“Zeph.” One of the waitresses, Lorraine, tapped his arm. She leaned closer to his ear as the sound of Selene’s luscious voice rose from the stage, her backup dancers burning up the floor behind her. “There is a girl asking for you.”
“What girl? Where?”
“Just outside the front door.” Lorraine gestured that way. “Medium height, blue-and-pink hair.”
“Ivy?” His heart made a leap in his chest.
“She didn’t say her name.”
“Why wouldn’t she come in?”
“She has no ticket.” Lorraine shrugged, moving on to weave between the tables, her drink tray above her shoulder.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Zeph slammed his wine glass on the counter, heading to the main entrance. He had to have a word with Gabriel at the door. For as long as Ivy was in Paris, she would be allowed to come and go as she pleased—no ticket required.
Gabriel was not by the door when he got there. He had probably stepped aside to chat with the new ticket girl.
A flash of pink-and-blue hair caught his eye when he exited, a feminine figure descending the basement stairs of the building next door.
“Ivy!” He rushed after her. The initial excitement at getting to see her again was suddenly replaced by the worry about what brought her here tonight.
A large van moved in front of the basement entrance, shielding him from the street. The next moment, somebody shoved a bag over his head. It was then yanked all the way down, shrouding his entire body.
The sharp scent of womora leaves hit his nostrils, the thick fog of it almost tangible inside the bag.
Instinctively, the spikes on his back, arms, and legs tensed, snapping up from his skin and shredding his clothes to pieces. Fervently, he fought against the rough hands that lifted him and carried him off.
The heavy fabric of the bag held, however. Whoever did this knew exactly what they were doing. The poison from the tips of his spikes dripped uselessly onto his own skin.
The womora smoke, mixed with another scent, sharp and unfamiliar, thickened around him, clouding his vision and muffling all his senses.
Until he could no longer feel a thing…