The steampunk market in Crewe was buzzing with activity as the ladies and gentlemen made their way between the stands and the vendors' stunning steam-powered robotic mannequins who were hawking on behalf of their owners.
"Silk robes and beautiful dresses, get your corset from my mistress!” said one.
“No,” said another wearing high heels with folding spikes, “shoes my masters clothing instead, milady,” delivering an expert pun through subtle puffs of steam.
A young lady nearby stole a moment to side-glance at the beautiful weaponised shoes as her parents stopped to exchange a few words with a man selling exquisite canes.
On the far side of the market place, and with an overview of most of the market, Faramond Frie and his friend Jhedron Luckspar turned their attention to more urgent matters. They had been informed that somewhere in the neighborhood there was a rabbit hiding in a hat. The tip off had come from two undead strangers in the form of a song that they performed as they casually passed by. The lyrics were too synchronous to ignore as they were singing about ‘that’ rabbit and not about some magicians bunny. There was also something about two white ears sticking out of a hat, as if the rabbit was actually trying to wear it as some disguise perhaps? To the adventurers, the lyrics had been clear enough.
Almost as if she had read their minds, a lady paused to pick up a book. Her hand hovered for a moment above ‘The rabbits Chronicles’ by Jhedron himself and the two friends held their breath.
"An excellent choice, if I may say so, madame," Faramond volunteered.
The woman nodded gracefully and begun to flip through its pages.
"I must say that I do enjoy a good science fiction story every now and then," she said.
"Forgive me, madame," Jhedron replied. "But this is no ordinary make believe, it's a story from another dimension now extinguished. I was there when it happened."
"Another time traveller, then?" the woman exclaimed in surprise. "I just met two of them on my way here!"
"Indeed madame," Jhedron admitted. “However I do find that all that motion back and forth upsets my stomach. My friend lord Stiletto and I also travel between dimensions."
But it all really began with a little bird, sitting on top of a hat with its empty teacup, whispering in a by-passer's ear:
"Seek the treasure."
The young boy with bare feet and a too big cap paused and looked around to see who had spoken to him. Being a child of the backstreets not that many ever paid him any attention at all, although sometimes they shouted at him, but this time everyone around him seemed too busy in their own world. He just shrugged and continued walking but the seed had been planted and maybe, just maybe, he would be so lucky as to find himself a real treasure!
If he did, then he too would be able to dress in one of those fashionable black tail-coats. He was so caught up in his daydreaming that he didn't notice how the entire market place stopped in awe as the beautiful Miss Ann Thrope arrived. She was balancing a tray with three coffee cups and as the boy walked around in wonder, he accidentally bumped into her and froze. As a backstreet urchin in this wonderland of ladies and gents he was too petrified to even begin to apologise.
Anyone close enough to hear the rattle of porcelain coming to a rest on their small plates took a step back, because though Miss Thrope was a gentle soul, she was not afraid to stand her ground.
"Oh! Are you all right there, dear?" she smiled.
The boy's jaw dropped as he met the hollow eyes of the last to have bothered her, now staring into nothingness from its place around her neck, but at least the boy managed a tiny nod. She returned the gesture and as he quickly moved out of her way she kept walking in the direction of her dear friends Jhedron Luckspar and Faramond Frie.
"There seems to be something in the air," she said putting down the tray as a fairy with copper wings fluttered by. The gentlemen looked as if they were about to open their mouths but she gave them a warning stare. "I meant," she said sharply ignoring the fairy and handing out the cups, "have you noticed anything unusual?"
Jhedron told her about the song they had heard earlier as he brought his coffee cup to his lips but Miss Thrope shook her head gently blowing at the hot surface in front of her.
"No, I don't believe the Rabbit has anything to do with this."
The two gentlemen knew better than to question her, but they couldn't help not being entirely convinced just yet.
They enjoyed their coffee and small talk, occasionally being interrupted by curious readers looking to find a new adventure, since there are adventures not to be experienced only recounted.
Miss Thrope assisted in the money exchange as both the authors engaged in signing their works to an eager young couple. As the two happily left the table with their purchase neatly tucked away in a bag, Miss Thrope turned to her friend. "Faramond, would you think ill of me if I asked to steal Jhedron away from you for a moment?"
"Not at all, Miss Thrope," he assured her. "Please take your time to explore the market together, I'm sure I can manage the table on my own in the meantime."
The last thing he heard as Miss Thrope and Jhedron linked arms and left him to it, was her soft voice telling him that although she knew that Faramond was capable of taking care of himself, she did have a terrible feeling, and she wanted Jhedron to promise her not to let him wonder off on his own.
Faramond was neither offended nor worried by her words, but they did give him pause, and he would have spent some time wondering what she meant if he hadn't been interrupted by an old man in a cravat coming up to him to ask about the skulls on the table.
"Oh, it's Yankai's skull," Faramond explained. "An immortal in search of his inner demon."
The old man raised an eyebrow but it was impossible to say if he found the phrase offensive or familiar. "That so?" he scuffed and picked up a copy. He read the back and turned it over to flip it through, but as he opened it there was a puff and blue smoke appeared.
As it cleared, The Bookfairy found herself sitting on the floor. She looked around in surprise as her eyes were drawn between rushing feet and colourful table cloth. She was vaguely aware of someone behind her, but as she turned around it was Faramond Frie who caught her attention. The old man next to him muttered something but she was still adjusting to this sudden change of scenery and could not yet make out any of the conversations. She stood up and shook her wings in place, gently smiling at her friend and the other man.
"I beg your pardon?" she said when she was fairily convinced that all her senses had adapted.
"Oh, so it does speak," the old man said sourly and put down the book as he – strange as it was – had lost interest in it. "I said: Are you for sale as well?" and his eyes didn't waste any time waiting for an answer before they did their best to get inside of her dress.
The crystal shaped ampoule of fairy dust hanging in a chain from her corset begun to glow in a dangerously violet colour, but she contained it and just straightened her back without as much as a flinch. He was lucky that she hadn’t had time to bring one of the swords from ‘Yankai’s Skull’ with her, or she would have plunged him through, but then again; she didn't want to stain her new dress.
"This is a book stand," The Bookfairy replied slowly. "The only thing for sale here are books."
"That's a shame," he turned to Faramond but his gaze still refused to let go of her. "Is she the missus, then?"
"No," she said firmly but he was no longer talking to her.
"You should propose, you know," he said to Faramond.
"The Bookfairy can't be tied by the chains of matrimony," Faramond said in a tone of voice that clearly demonstrated how absurd the very idea was.
"Women like that sort of stuff. – Don’t you?"
"Well, I wouldn't know,” she said. “But from what I have seen of womankind on my various journeys through countless stories, most of them seem to wish to belong to no-one but themselves. Thus, as far as I can tell, you most certainly are no expert on women either."
The old man finally tore his eyes from her as he looked to Faramond for support. Surely he must do something to punish such impertinence, but the author didn't even pretend to hide his smile and the old man stomped away feeling sorry for his sprained ego.
"Well, I've never," The Bookfairy sighed. "How rude to interrupt me in my reading like that!"
Faramond and The Bookfairy went on to more pleasant conversation as she complemented him on his book. She still hadn't finished talking about her favourite character, The (mythical) Poet, when Miss Thrope and Jhedron returned from their explorations. It was a loving reunion as they hadn't seen each other for too long.
“I must say, we just witnessed the most peculiar thing,” Miss Thrope said once they had had time to catch up. “Please, Jehdron, do tell our friends about the accident!”
“Well,” he begun and his audience could tell that this was going to be a good tale. “Next to a stand with alluring bottles, there was this vendor with a neat table of handcrafted firearms. They all had their very own innovative features and dazzling holsters, but even more conspicuous was a bell jar containing a living brain.”
The Bookfairy’s eyes widened and she met the gaze of Miss Thrope, nodding slightly to validate the story. Even Faramond was impressed by what he heard. So far, no-one had been successful in such an achievement. At least not officially.
“The vendor said that it was his great grandmother, a grumpy …”
“A principled lady,” Miss Thorpe corrected him.
“Yes, one of those,” he agreed. “Anyway, the device allowed her to communicate by steering a mechanical arm holding a quill, and judging by the things she wrote, she hadn’t changed her mind about much lately.”
“I do find that somewhat comforting,” Faramond said. “If I were to die, I wouldn’t want to wake up not being able to recognize my own mind.”
“Fair enough,” Jhedron agreed. “However, she had us know that there were two things in life – and beyond – that she did not approve of. One was weapons and the other was drinking.”
The ladies gasped and exchanged another glance as the story was unfolding. Being trapped in an armory sat next to a stand drowned in firewater, an accident was just waiting to happen. And so it did.
“The vendor said that he was a little bit worried about his old nan, as lately her arm had been twitching. We were just getting engaged in an interesting discussion about whether or not it could be fixed by changing the mechanism when the arm threw the quill as a dart, aiming for the neighboring vendor. As he threw himself to the ground to take cover, she got hold of one of the firearms, accidently set to shrink. Her great grandchild did his best to yank it out of her hand, but it was too late.”
As the friends where absorbed by the story they hadn’t noticed that the audience was growing. Now, they all simultaneously gasped.
“The liquor stand shrank from its former glory into the size of a bedside table and the poor man caring for it was lucky to remain in full size.”
There was an upset murmur as the audience aired their opinions in all of these matters. A few uneasy glares fell upon the skulls on the authors’ table and it sent shivers down the spines of the beholders.
Once the commotion had settled down, the two ladies Miss Thrope and The Bookfairy quickly engaged in a conversation of their own about this and that, and they could only be interrupted by passing folk eager to buy books.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Miss Thrope gasped suddenly. "Are you still looking for a quill to open new portals into the unknown?"
"Indeed I am," said The Bookfairy. "I've been searching in one realm after another but so far I haven't found one to replace the one I lost in Gävle two years ago."
There had been much lost when the Rabbit destroyed that dimension, but though Miss Thrope was sympathetic, she was also exited to tell her friend the news.
"I think there could be such a pen here at the market! There is one man creating magical pens from enchanted wood, but there are also feather pens."
The Bookfairy's eyes lit up and her gaze begun to search before she had time to stop herself.
"Why don't you take Faramond for a stroll and have a look around?" Miss Thrope suggested but she saw that The Bookfairy hesitated. "I insist."
"Well, in that case I will, thank you.”
And so, with the blessing of her friend, The Bookfairy took Faramond by one arm and her pouch by the other.
They didn't get very far before The Bookfairy stopped to have a closer look at some beautiful jewellery that made the table shimmer. The crafter was celebrating her birthday and was in a beautiful mood. While The Bookfairy fell in love with an owl in a neckless, Faramond tried out a new pocket-watch to go with his waistcoat.
"What's its name?" Faramond asked referring to the owl as they continued.
"I don't know yet," The Bookfairy answered. "And I couldn't wear it before we are properly introduced." She stroke its turquoise stone belly and let it slid back into its pocket in the pouch.
Next stop was the peacock feathers, but as magnificent as they were, they could not become the magic pen she was looking for.
"Thank you for inviting me to come with you," Faramond said as they walked past the loud steam mannequin asking them to get their clothes from its mistress. "Maybe I could return the favour by inviting you to have luncheon with me before we go back to the others."
"Thank you, Faramond. I would be delighted to."
They rounded the next corner and entered a new busy aisle. Slowly they made their way up to the stand The Bookfairy had been looking for. It was tended by a lovely couple that even showed her their stock of free range organic fairy dust. This, of course, pleased The Bookfairy and she made sure to point it out to Faramond as well. He was duly impressed but to him, the pens were more interesting and indeed, the feather pens were not only beautiful but also the real thing. If used correctly, they could open portals straight into imagination. Both the author and The Bookfairy stood in awe as they watched the skilled craftsmanship gone into them. It was a tough choice, but finally she fell for the grey quill.
Faramond led the way past the stand with fans and parasols, and maybe experience made him hurry his steps a little extra as they passed another stand with shimmering jewellery. Though, not even he could rush past the lady with a dancing bear. As Faramond noticed how captured The Bookfairy was by the music, he asked her to dance with him. That was a proposal she was happy to accept and the bear was also happy to get some company.
Once the music stopped, the applause died out and the crowd started moving again, the two book lovers were privileged to enjoy a chat with the lady and make friends with both her and the bear.
Eventually they parted, but as the two were still too excited from the experience, they didn't pay any attention to the little bird sitting on a black top hat conspiratorially whispering in their ears:
"Seek the treasure."
However, they did decide to leave the market place in search for the promised luncheon.
"Tell me, dear fairy, what do you fancy?" Faramond asked and suggested that they would cut through the grass where a white tent was set up.
She never had time to answer, as they were greeted by the couple of charming time travellers residing in this remarkable home. They were invited to admire the most amazing things and it looked as if it would be a wonderful encounter – up until the hosts lowered their voices and asked if they had ever heard of the ‘Hamster Club’. Faramond was as intrigued as The Bookfairy and the time travellers, lady Barnes and lord Davis explained the rules.
The two book lovers choose their hamster champions and the competition was on. In the first round, Faramond's grey hamster tipped The Bookfairy's black and white so quickly it never knew what happened. In the second round her hamster tried another tactic, trying to stay away long enough for the grey hamster to exhaust itself. It seemed to be a winning concept until the hamster got frightened by an unexpected siren and clung on to the rim with its hands and teeth, refusing to let go. As The Bookfairy helplessly watched her champion getting nowhere, the friendly Faramond pitied the creature and heroically reached out to set the hamster free but in doing so he stained his own reputation, and was accused of hamster interfering!
Still, there had to be a final round to determine which hamster was the ultimate winner, and this time the grey left no mercy, pinning the black and white for the three count.
The Bookfairy congratulated her friend on the victory, and the time travellers acknowledged it, rewarding Faramond with the rare and valuable prize of perfect harmony, disguised as a teabag.
Unfortunately the interfering couldn't be overlooked and lord Davis was sorry to have to duel his new friend but rules are rules and honour is honour. Faramond was not afraid to accept, since he knew that though wrong, he had still done the honourable thing.
They agreed to meet up later, after all, Faramond did promise to treat The Bookfairy to a luncheon and the good gentleman expected nothing less than that Faramond would want to honour his word as it might be his last day alive.
The atmosphere was a little bit damped as Faramond and The Bookfairy shared their meal. She knew that there was no point in suggesting an escape, but she did wonder if it would be all right to use her pen to re-write the ending – no matter who shot who. She genuinely liked the two adventurers that they had just got to know and she didn't want to see anyone getting hurt.
"Maybe you can ask the inventor to build a box for my brain so that at least I can finish my next book," he smiled and placed his hand on hers.
"Please, don't joke about this, Faramond."
"You're right, my dear, but you know, Jhedron and I have survived worse things than a duel and look at you, you made it out of Gävle without a scratch!"
"I was travelling through the realms of books."
They took another bite but no matter how slowly they ate, they eventually finished and the time to duel was nigh.
They walked back to their friends by The Time Travelling Tea Tent. Lord Davis welcomed them and let Faramond choose his weapon before they stood back to back and lady Barnes counted their steps. As they turned around, Faramond insisted that lord Davis would take the first shot – not realising that he had already killed two others that very morning. Lady Barnes screamed as the shot went off and hit Faramond in the neck, his blood spraying into the air.
As his body fell to the ground, so did a tear from the corner of The Bookfairy's eye. She was stunned by her loss and couldn't even bring herself to weep.
Luckily, lady Barnes was an experienced woman – having travelled through every age that ever been or would be, and she had been ready for anything. She tousled to Faramond's rescue and fell down beside him, while heaving up a small bottle of smelling salts so strong it could wake up the dead – and what’s more; clean any stain from any surface.
She held it under Faramond's nose, and indeed, the wound healed as he was soon brought back to life, surprised to be able to sit up again.
The Bookfairy quickly dried her tears and approached him with a big smile on her face.
"Faramond!" she exclaimed. "Oh, my dear Faramond, how are you feeling?"
"What a great shot!" he complimented his opponent and felt his neck before turning to the fairy. "My head spins and my ears are ringing, but other than that, I'm feeling as great as ever!"
Lord Davis reached out his hand to help him up and The Bookfairy hurried to link his other arm, not sure if she wanted to support him or protect him from further harm.
“Thank you very much, lady Barnes,” Faramond said and bowed courteously to her amusement.
“Careful Mr Frie, or I’ll ask lord Davis to shoot you again,” she smiled.
“Oh, no no! Once is quite enough,” assured lord Davis as he met The Bookfairy’s dangerous gaze. “I don’t wish to impose any fatal habits on our new friend.”
“Speaking of friends,” she said and squeezed Faramond’s arm, “we better get back to the table.”
“Then we will have to come and visit you there,” lady Barnes established.
“Please do,” Faramond said and kissed her hand. “We’ll be looking forward to it.”
As Faramond Frie and The Bookfairy made their way back through the market, they stopped by a friendly vendor behind a table set with bracelets and other useful artifacts. It was clear that each and every one of them had their unique story and the book lovers couldn’t wait to learn more about them. Their curiosity rewarded them a secretive smile from the gentleman on the other side.
“Some stories are not to be told,” he said and adjusted a bottle of air kraken anti-venom. “They are to be explored. You look like the kind of people who would know that.”
The Bookfairy lowered her eyelashes in embarrassment as she had to be reminded of this fundamental truth.
Faramond, as a true author, was inspired. “How beautifully put,” he said and repeated the words to himself. “Do you mind if I just write them down?”
“Be my guest,” the vendor said and turned his attention to a customer who needed to discuss the various uses of a black widow bracelet. The lady was asking on behalf of a dear friend, but on a separate note, could they make haste before her husband was done by the liquor stand?
“I seem to have misplaced my pen,” Faramond said in disappointment. “You don’t happen to have one I can borrow?”
The Bookfairy reached for her pouch and poked around before she eventually found the quill that could open portals into the imagination. She held it for a moment and felt the weight of its power as a tickle in her hand.
“Be …” she begun but didn’t know how to finish.
“Careful?” Faramond suggested and held out his palm to receive it.
“Humble. I think the use of a pen like this calls for being humble.”
He nodded in agreement and took a deep breath before he let the words take shape on a piece of paper. To their relief nothing appeared to happen.
At that very moment, in another aisle, there was a shimmer in the air right next to a hat with a little whispering bird on top of it. A small portal opened into a dimension where something of the size of a bird could be whoever it wanted. And this bird wanted to be free to leave its hat. Reality made a popping sound that was immediately drowned in the market noise from conversations and attempted haggling and the bird’s beak dropped.
“Seek the treasure,” the bird whispered manically and shivered as the tiny portal shut closed again.
The bird lifted one leg and then the other, unsteadily balancing on one foot at a time. It glanced at the empty teacup and snorted. That was no way of living, not when there were stories to be explored!
The bird spread its wings and caught the wind in its feathers. It was finally time to seek.
The market place looked different from high above. There were so many colourful humanoids crowding on the ground and more shiny things on the tables than a bird could ever imagine. Yet, none of that seemed important right now. This bird had a mission.
It sniffed in the air, because in this dimension its smell was strong as a hound’s, and felt a whiff of true beauty coming from somewhere below. It turned its little head this way and that, in an attempt to spot the source.
It was hard, too many smells, too much going on, but once the eye had caught its target, its warm red glow made it impossible to be unseen. The only problem was that it was moving, despite the thick crowd it kept a steady pace heading towards the outskirts of the market place. The bird made a wide circle to find a way to get close enough.
Miss Ann Thrope rubbed the skull in her necklace between her thumb and index finger. She hadn’t said a word while listening to what Faramond and The Bookfairy had told her and Jhedron, but her blood was boiling as she struggled to keep her breathing under control.
“You were shot?” she said slowly and the disapproval dripped off of each syllable.
“Yes,” Faramond admitted happily and put his hand over the healed wound. As he rubbed his neck he suddenly felt the bullet left behind underneath the skin. For a split second this concerned him, but since it didn’t seem to cause him any harm it instead pleased him to have something to remember the experience by.
“And saved,” Jhedron pointed out, still amazed by such a powerful brew. After all, he had witnessed quite a lot of magical things on his journeys but nothing comparable to this. “This is truly remarkable. Your shirt doesn’t even have grass stains from your fall.”
“That’s beside the point,” Miss Thrope insisted. “No one hurts my friends – even if they can unhurt them afterwards!”
It was difficult to describe the sound the crowd made as it all of a sudden froze in fear for a moment, only to immediately withdraw from the market place. Being true ladies and gentlemen, they wouldn’t dream of running in panic however, they made sure to politely squeeze past each other to make sure that they weren’t caught in the firing line.
However, it didn’t take long before there were new people around them and the imminent threat had been forgotten. The friends’ conversation was suddenly interrupted as three ladies in their early twenties approached the table with their chaperon. It was clear that they were looking for an adventurous read to help them escape the dreadful expectations of finding suitable husbands. The chaperon, however, wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t read anything inappropriate. However, they all agreed that the short story collection ‘Equations of being’ looked like an edifying book. Jhedron, as the author, raised a warning that the mathematical headers didn’t mean that this was a math book but the chaperon was still pleased. She even read one of the short stories to see for herself that there were depths to it.
Above their heads, the bird planned its sneaky surprise attack and as the humans re-engaged in their discussion, the opportunity presented itself.
The bird landed on the ground behind the table unnoticed and carefully snuck closer. No-one saw it jump up on the chair and from there to the table top. It walked up to the skull closest to Faramond, constantly looking around to make sure it wasn’t discovered. The bird hurried to strike a pose when a passing-by gentleman paused to have a closer look at it. He squinted to try to determine whether the bird was alive or not but quickly made his excuses and hurried on when The Bookfairy asked if she could help him. She shrugged and soon her attention was absorbed by her friends, not paying any attention to the bird innocently climbing Faramond’s arm.
A bunch of pirates walked past them nodding in greeting but only the new bare feet ship’s boy wearing a black tail-coat actually stopped by the book stand. He tilted his head and swallowed before daring to speak:
“Excuse me, sir,” he interrupted and wringed the rolled up his copy of the comic book ‘Renegade Pilot’ by Matt Clarke from a few stands away. “Why do you have a black parrot on your shoulder?”
Faramond slowly turned his head and found himself starring into a shimmering black eye.
“Hello you!” he said in surprise.
But the bird didn’t waste any time on pleasantries. It quickly dipped its head down Farmond’s breast pocket to snatch the precious treasure. Within the blink of an eye, the bird took off and flew away into the safety of the height.
But the bird didn’t waste any time on pleasantries. It quickly dipped its head down Farmond’s breast pocket to snatch the precious treasure. Within the blink of an eye, the bird took off and flew away into the safety of the height.
The Bookfairy spread her wings, ready to pursue, but Faramond took her hand in his.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Whatever was in that tea bag I don’t need it. All I ever wanted is right here.” He looked at each one of them and swept his hand towards the table.
His friends knew that he meant every word. “Thank you, Faramond,” they said. “Very wise words indeed,” Jhedron added.
“Yes,” Miss Thrope agreed. “Although, personally, I wouldn’t mind some dinner.”
“I second that,” The Bookfairy said. “And I happen to know where we can find a nice Mexican restaurant.”
Once the market place had closed for the day and all the people and vendors had left, there was still one stand where there was vivid activity. A little black bird was manically whispering to itself as it was heating water with a raygun wrongfully borrowed from a neighboring weapon dealer.
“Seek the treasure to feel the pleasure of true harmony.”
Once boiling, the raven put the fragrant tea bag in its cup and poured the water over it, watching the tea whirl and twirl to life. After a few minutes the bird used the silver spoon to fish out the used bag before sitting down to finally enjoy a nice cup of tea.