We entered Billie’s market through a false gate. It looked like any other piece of fencing to anyone without sufficient magic to heighten their perception. On top of an illusion, there was a low-level repulsion spell that would drive people away without them realizing why. Knowing that a spell fabricated the feeling didn’t make it any less vexing. My gut told me to run the other way, right up until we were in the market. The repulsion spell lifted quickly as we walked into the open-air bazaar. It looked like a farmer’s market at first glance. I couldn’t see that everything on sale was magic until I was closer to the goods. We enjoyed a gentle breeze as we walked a path with vendors on each side. If we weren’t on a specific mission, I could see spending a few hours look things over. As it was, we didn’t pause for anything on our way to the enchanter’s booth.
“Someone is following us, Milo,” Umbra whispered in my mind. I looped my arm around Ruby’s and closed my eyes, trusting her to keep me on our path.
Umbra showed me the view behind us as clear as if I’d turned around. A few people were behind us shopping, but a curly-haired brunette woman was keeping her gaze locked on us. She wasn’t even bothering to be subtle. Not once did she feign interest in any of the merchandise. I considered turning around to see if she’d pretend to stop following us. It was better if she thought she had the advantage, though. She was too far for Umbra to get a sense of her power. She was a little above average height for a woman but didn’t look particularly fit. Between the three of us, I was pretty sure we could take her if we had to. But I knew better than to start a fight here. We wouldn’t win Billie’s trust by bringing drama to their business. I had to hope that whoever this woman was, she would know better than to stir up trouble. If it was blatantly obvious who the aggressor was, usually only they would be escorted out of the market. If there was any question of who was to blame, all offending parties had to go.
“Something up?” Ruby asked. She didn’t sound worried, but she kept her voice low.
“Nothing to worry about yet. We need to focus on Billie,” I said, opening my eyes but internally requesting Umbra keep watch on our stalker.
“You got a strategy for winning them over?” Eli asked.
“Appeal to their ego,” I said.
“And if that doesn’t work?” he asked.
“We have plenty of money,” Ruby said.
“So do they if they’re as good as June said,” he argued.
“We keep sweetening the pot till they take it,” I said.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just grab them and run?” Eli asked.
“If they’re as good as June says, I’m sure that they don’t go anywhere they don’t want to,” I said. A top-notch enchanter is a force to be reckoned with since they save all their best creations for themselves. I didn’t see much point in arguing the ethical side of his plan when the practical side made more sense. I wasn’t exactly the paragon of good morals.
Billie’s tent was an advertisement for their skill as an enchanter. It looked like three canvas cubes stacked on top of each other. The second story was larger than the first, and the third was larger still. A clockwork humanoid greeted us as we stepped into the tent. A second one sat behind a check-out counter. They were both armed with multiple obvious weapons. I didn’t need to look closer to know that they would have less conspicuous ones ready at a moment’s notice. There wasn’t anything special on display on the ground level—plenty of useful items but nothing the automatons couldn’t handle. A spiral staircase in the back left corner looked like it was entirely constructed out of tan canvas. I tested the first step, gently pressing my foot down. It held its shape like concrete. If I couldn’t see the material, I couldn’t distinguish it from any other staircase.
Another clockwork person waited on the second floor. The three tables of merchandise all gave off a higher energy signature than anything we saw downstairs. If I weren’t so eager to get to Billie, it would have been tempting to take a look around. I kept going up to the third floor. This time the clockwork creature wasn’t shaped like a person. Instead, a metallic manticore was staring us down. It barely allowed enough room for all three of us to get off the last step up. The wings spread wide, blocking my view of anything interesting past the shining beast. We all held very still as it considered us. The scorpion tail wouldn’t need to be poisonous to kill us with how big it was. One well-placed stab would do that just fine. There had been no signage warning us away from coming to this level which told me Billie wanted people to see this. I guessed that those scared away by it wouldn’t be worth their time.
“State your business,” the manticore said in an unexpectedly human voice.
“We’re here to commission a set of items from the enchanter,” I said.
“What kind of items?” it asked.
I held my necklace up so the metal monster could examine it.
“Very well,” it said. The wings collapsed, and the manticore stepped aside, allowing us to get a complete look at Billie’s workshop. Raw materials covered every surface—precious stones, metals, and woodcuts were strewn about with seemingly no order. A female-presenting person with short spiky platinum hair sat on a stool at one of the tables. They looked at my necklace eagerly. I moved forward with as much confidence as I could summon. I was painfully aware that the mechanic manticore was watching us closely. Umbra was outside the tent watching the witch who’d been following us, but I felt them flow back to me as soon as I thought about them. A vision of the curly-haired brunette came with them. She’d stepped into one of the booths nearby and flashed the proprietor her seal. I recognized the Coven’s mark even at a distance. She was after me. That was going to make things complicated.
“Cara was my mentor,” Billie said. “I helped her make one of those blockers before.”
“She chose her pupil well. This whole shop is very impressive,” I said.
“She never appreciated my flair for the dramatic, but she knew talent when she saw it,” they said.
“Do you have any blockers like this one?” I asked.
“No. No one can make something that complicated alone.”
“Willard seemed to think he could manage it,” Eli said. I had to quash the urge to drop him out of the tent through his own shadow. Thankfully, Billie laughed.
“He might have the raw power to make one but none of the delicacy needed. At best, you’d have a knock-off that works long enough for you to get out of Atlanta before the Coven snatched you up,” Billie said. “Don’t look so surprised. They’re the only ones strong enough to need that level of overkill.”
“You’re not worried about having fugitives in your tent?” I asked.
“That depends on what I get out of it,” They said. “If you’ve already been to see Willard and ended up here, something was off about his offer.”
“We need three blockers on par with this one in the next few days. He told us he’d need you and June to help if we wanted to get them that fast,” I said.
“Our help? That’s so very Willard. Have you already been to June?”
“What did she say?”
“$150,000, a commitment to supplying the power needed to make ours plus one for her, and a promise to keep Willard three feet away from her at all times,” Ruby said.
“All right. I’ll help. But I want $300,000, and I want you to convince Willard to leave Georgia. Otherwise, no deal.”
“Done,” Eli said. Umbra offered to do several very unpleasant things to him for me. I contented myself with the mental images and held out my hand to Billie. They shook it.