"Not right now," I said. "Mia and I had plans. We're going to find a carnival."
"Maybe some other time?" Mia said, hope in her voice.
The lead raven tilted his head. "Carnival?" he said.
"Yes," said Mia. "I know there's gotta be one around, so I'm going to find it."
A wave of soft whispering and ruffling feathers went through the crowd of ravens.
"Yes," said the head raven. "I am aware of that carnival. However, if you are certain, I will inform his majesty of your decision at once and suggest he reschedule."
"Thanks," I said.
The raven bowed again, and the others joined in.
"I wish you luck in your. . . carnival," the raven said. Then, he and the whole group all took to the air. We watched them go up over the trees and off into the sky until they were black specks.
"I like them better than the crows," I said after a while.
"Me too," Mia said. She adjusted her jacket and scarf, then took my hand and said, "Welp. Let's go."
We down the street, like we were going to her school, and I wondered if maybe the carnival was like the little-kid fair that happened in the school parking lot every year. But no, instead of going across the street, Mia went into the big shrubs the city had planted by the wall that separated some houses from the road.
"Come on," she said. "Follow me."
I sighed and crouched down to fit between the shrubs. "Mia, I'm getting too big to crawl around like this."
"Stop whining. Come on!"
Once I was in the hollow spot with her, she scrawled along the back of the shrubs, up against the wall. There was a little more space there, but even so, the branches scraped at my face and arms, and several times I was terrified that a spider had fallen in my hair.
I knew better than to expect us to crawl back into the sidewalk, but even still, I was surprised where we wound up. The sidewalk, the street, and all the houses of our neighborhood were gone. The shrubs were still behind us, but now they and us were at the edge of an enormous field of stamped-down, yellow grass. Ahead of us was the carnival.
It was fenced in by tall wooden slats painted with pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns, but I could still see the tops of circus-like tents, and a Ferris wheel with pumpkin-shaped carriages, and strands of orange balloons floating in arches.
"Come on!" Mia squealed, running for the entrance.
The entrance was a big gap in the fence with bigger, better balloon arches over it and a banner than said, Harvest Fair! in bold letters. In the middle of the walkway, not blocking anything off, but definitely The First Place You Go, was a small booth with a price board for tickets.
The man at the booth smiled at us as we approached. I found my eyes drawn to his jacket-- I barely noticed anything else about him. His jacket was big and orange, with felted and quilted circles of different orange shades sewn on, and buttons and funny straps that buttoned to itself. Some places on the jacket had different patterns-- pumpkins, leaves, abstract shapes-- and it all made my head go swimmy to look at it.
He said something, and I completely missed it, but found myself nodding along.
"No," said Mia. She didn't tell or anything, but her voice cut trough the strange fog in my head.
"You sure?" the man said, his voice cheerful. "If you change your mind, there are ticket booths all around the park."
"Thank you!" Mia said. She hurried into the park, and I had to jog to keep up with her. I manged to convince her that we ought to look at the conveniently placed map of the place before rushing ahead, just so we at least had an idea of what we wanted to do.
The carnival, it turned out, was shaped like intersecting ovals. The oval we were walking through was the one full of shops and games, and the next oval over was the one with shows and rides.
"Which one?" I asked Mia. This was her show, after all.
"I wanna see the shops!" she said.
"Which way first?"
"Uh. Uh. Uhhhhh. . . " She frantically looked left, then right, then left again. "That way!"
And so we went. As we left the map, a parade of people in old-timey outfits passed down the walkway, and us and all the other guests stood to the side to let them pass. They were juggling bells on tall sticks, and throwing orange rose petals from woven baskets, and some were dancing and playing instruments. One old lady in a patchwork dress bent down to give Mia a flower, and I saw how pointed her ears were, and how her pupils were slitted like a snake's.
Mia didn't seem to notice or mind, and she put the flower carefully in her hair, behind her ear.
The direction Mia had chosen was Market Alley. Both sides of the alley were crammed full of stalls and tents with shops under them, and people milled around, going from stand to stand, looking through things.
I hadn't brought any money with me, but I still took my time. Some of the stalls themselves were more plain and recognizable-- the kind we'd seen at fairs a hundred times before, but most were not, instead made to look like they were made of rock, or vines, or made to look like animals, with feathers or scales carved in, and with claws or paws at the bottom of the posts. Some of them sold little statues made of silver and gold, or statues carved from gems, and other just sold the gems alone. There were tiny painted pottery things, and sculpted glass, and water color paintings. One larger shop that took up several stands all next to each other sold swords-- shiny swords, long swords, short swords, swords with weirdly colored metal, swords with gemstones in them, swords with wavy edges, swords in shapes I didn't know a sword could be in. There was a jewelry stand nearby, with little cards beside each piece saying the price and what kind of stone it was. Mia went to look at those while I ogled the swords.
"You interested, sport?" said the man selling them. His coat was all crazy and patchwork-patterned like the man at the front, but his patterns had different kinds of swords and axes all over. I felt my eyes starting to sink in to it, they way they had at the entrance, and I quickly looked away, back to the swords.
"Oh, just looking," I said. "I didn't bring any money."
"That's alright," the man said. His voice was cheerful and kind. "We don't just take money around these parts. I'd be happy to give you a sword in exchange for something else."
I looked up at him, focusing on his face and not the jacket.
It was only then that I noticed how yellow his eyes were, and how pointed his ears were.
"Like what?" I said.
"Things you won't notice," he said. "Little things, mostly. Which one were you interested in?"
I pointed to a short dagger with a blue stone in the pommel.
"Excellent choice. For that one. . . how about a lock of your hair?"
"My hair?" I said.
"It'll grow back, won't it?"
I thought of all the science fiction books I'd read where people got cloned from their hair, or were tracked by their DNA,.
"Maybe not," I said, backing away. "I'll think about it."
The man was still smiling, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I'll be here all day."
I left the sword seller and weaved through the crowd to meet Mia in the middle of the alley. On her shirt, she had a little gold-ish pin shaped like a unicorn.
"What did you pay for that?" I said.
"Two dollars!" she said brightly. "The people here are silly. The lady said she wanted the color of my eyes, but I told her I had my allowance, so she let me buy it for money instead."
I took her hand and we continued down the market alley.
The further along the stalls we went, the stranger the stalls and wares both became. Funny looking glass things that sang when you touched them, paintings of nature landscapes where the trees inside swayed with the breeze and the sun actually went down. More jewelry, but this time the cards said things like "charmed for beauty" and "made from widow's tears." I spotted another sword stall, but this time, the swords were all old and dinged, and they had dark stains on them, and the man who ran it was big and broad like a bear, with armor stained dark like the blades, and a mushed up face and ears so pointy that they stuck up past his head.
Now that I knew not to look at the jackets the staff wore, I saw how strange they looked. All of them had pointed ears. For some, that was the weirdest they were. Others had strange, angled faces, or faces that looked fused with animals. Some had scales around the edges of their eyes, or feathers in their hair. Some had green or gray skin that had the same texture as lizard skin, brown skin textured like tree bark.
"Mia," I whispered. "Do any of these people look weird to you?"
Mia glanced at me and whispered back, "You're not supposed to say."
We were probably halfway down the market alley -- it was a long alley-- when Mia suddenly said, "I'm tired of shops. I wanna go on a ride."
"Okay," I said. I could see the top of a ferris wheel in the distance. "Want to go on the wheel? We have to go to the ride section--"
"No. I want to go on a merry go round."
And she said it in that particular determined way that I knew there would be no changing her mind.
"Does this place have one?" I didn't remember seeing any carousels on the posters or map.
"It's a carnival. It should."
"This is more like a fair," I said, but she was already walking up to a patchwork-jacketed man who was emptying a trash bin.
"How can I help you?" he said, sing-song.
"Where's the merry-go-round?"
"Ooh, sorry young miss, but we don't have any of those around here. We do have a mighty fine Ferris wheel--"
"You're a carnival," Mia said, crossing her arms. "Carnivals have merry-go-rounds."
I knew then that it was over, but the carnival worker didn't know better. The man's smile flickered for a moment. "I am afraid, young miss, that you are mistaken. We don't--"
And then there was a little bit of shouting and a lot of movement off in the distance, past the rows of games. The three of us turned look and saw a bunch of people-- workers and guests alike-- rushing around a giant carousel that had appeared suddenly between two stalls. The carousel was huge,one of the fancy two-tier kind, and I could hear the music it played even at a distance.
"Oh, there it is!" Mia said. She grabbed my hand and shouted, "Thank you!" to the worker.
I glanced back just long enough to see the carnival worker staring at the carousel, mouth open, and to notice his oddly-sharp teeth, but then Mia was pulling me through the crowd. Before I knew it, we were running under the stanchions and through the ribboned-off area where a line would be, if anyone besides us had wanted to go on, and then we were on the platform, choosing which animals to ride.
They were well done animals. Lifelike and life-sized. Only after Mia assured me that they weren't going to suddenly come to life did I allow myself to climb onto the back of a lion.
"Do they know how to make it go?" I said. "If this wasn't theirs--"
"It's a carnival," Mia said. "Carnivals have merry go rounds. Of course they'll make it work."
Sure enough, a minute later the entire thing creaked to a start. The lion rose and fell, and when it did, its legs moved like it was running, slow at first, but picking up speed as the ride went on.
"You're sure these won't come alive?" I said.
The ride spun along, and I let my mind wander. I looked out at the faces of the people watching the ride. Some were guests, who were starting to get in line, but most weren't. Most were carnival workers-- some in the patchwork jackets, but some were wearing normal clothes. I could still tell they were staff members, though. Even the ones that looked normal had pointed ears, and a lot of them didn't look normal to begin with.
There's a word for it, I found myself thinking. There's a word for all of this. I'd read fantasy books. I'd listened to my mom's f--
-- tales about things like this.
I frowned. I'd almost has the word then, but it flitted away, just out of reach.
Why couldn't I remember it?
"You wanna go again?" Mia said. I blinked and realized that the ride was slowing down.
"Sure," I said.
The ride stopped and more people filtered on.
We went on the carousel another three times before we were both sick of it. But other people were enjoying it; it was packed full of people by the time we left, and the carnival workers had apparently accepted the new addition to their park and were actively advertising it. Someone had even run off a few posters to put up.
After the shops alley was a food court, with a big open space in the middle full of tents and picnic tables, and a bunch of stalls and trailers and make-shift buildings around the edges selling food.
"I wanna see what smells so good," Mia said, pulling me along.
I let her drag me around to each food place. Most of them had long lines, but they also had posters of their menus out on posts for people to decide ahead of time. Mia took her time going to each one, trying to decide what she wanted.
Some of the menus were normal stuff-- burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders and fries-- but just like with the shops, thee further along we went, the weirder they got. The words on the menu gradually changed from English to some language that used English letters, but wasn't, and then into something that looked like scratched lines rather than writing. The pictures on the menus stopped being of hamburgers and started showing strange, humanoid creatures the size of rats being spit roasted over a fire, or strange flowers that looked like faces, or drinks that appeared completely normal except for the fact that they were a deep, blood red.
I saw a family of guests, a mom, dad, and three kids, pass by, each of them eating a handful of the weird little roasted creatures on kebabs.
"I'm not hungry anymore," I said.
Down the way, at some food place I hadn't investigated yet, a man was on his knees, begging. When we walked by, we saw the place sold cakes, and heard the man pleading for another one. Nobody else in line seemed to notice him, but the manager of the stall, one of the goblin-looking workers, had come out to meet him, and he wasn't looking impressed.
"Uh, Mia?" I said.
"Do you think the snow cones are safe?" Mia said. She wasn't even looking anymore.
Two more goblin people arrived. There was some whispering among them, and the manager said something to the man. He jumped up and hugged the manager, who gave him an apron. I saw them lead the man to the side of the stall, where the earth suddenly swelled upwards into a mound, and a tunnel suddenly opened up. They all vanished into the tunnel, and it sealed closed behind them. The earth sank back until there was no trace of it at all.
"What?" said Mia. "What's wrong?"
"I think we should go home," I said
"But I want to play games!" she said. "And we didn't even go on any rides."
"Merry go round," I said.
She scowled. "That one doesn't count, I had to make that one up."
"Fine. Games and rides, then we're gone. This place is too crazy, even for us." I said.
We left the food court quickly. I kept my eyes directly ahead-- I didn't want to see anything more.
The games section turned out to be disappointing. Every activity, from rock-climbing to ring-toss to knocking-over-bottles-with-a-ball all cost tickets. And while there were plenty of ticket stands around, none of them took money.
"What'll it cost, then?" I said.
And the stand attendants would smile and say something vague like, "not much" or "nothing you'd miss." Even when Mia did the talking and tried to talk in her demanding voice, they still wouldn't give us a clear answer.
"Fine," she grumbled. "I don't wanna waste money on games anyways. Come on, the rides don't cost anything."
What I wanted to do was get out of there, but Mia was already ahead of me and dangerously close to getting lost in the crowd. I said a word my mom would probably ground me for had she heard me and followed after. Not only did I not want anything bad to happen to her, but if I lost her, I had no idea how to get back home.
"Mia!" I shouted. "Wait up!"
I stopped being polite to the other guests and started trying to shove my way forward. She couldn't have gotten that far ahead, right?
Then I reached a clearing, and my heart sank. I was at the intersection of the ovals, coming out of one branch, with three branches in front of me. One direction led to the games and rides area-- where Mia was supposed to be heading, while the others just went through more shop stalls. Sometime in the hour or so we'd been there, swarms of guests had flooded the park, and the crowd was obnoxiously packed.
Off to the side, there was another ticket booth manned by a red-haired man in the same kind of flashy, patchy jacket most of the workers were wearing. He looked bored, but I bet he had a walkie-talkie or something on him, or some way to use the intercom. I could probably ask him for help.
What should I do?
-->[Ask for help?]