Meet Mia in Shanghai!
“That thing has eyes, Mia,” Becky gasped. “It has eyes.”
Mia laughed at her best friend’s reaction. “It’s not like they can see you. Look,” she pointed out, happily using the wooden skewer stuck through the fried eel to dangle the creature in Becky’s face. “Deep-fried, see?”
Becky grimaced and tried to duck out of the way. “I thought you were supposed to be a good influence on me,” she said.
Mia scoffed. “Why would you think that?” Her brow furrowed and she scrunched her nose.
“You’re the older one,” Becky pointed out.
“We’re both sixteen.” Chuckling, Mia shook her head in exasperation at her best friend.
“Yeah, but you’ll be seventeen in October, so that makes you my elder. You should be the responsible one,” Becky whined.
Mia rolled her eyes. There’s no way Becky would say something like that if they weren’t in Shanghai. They would both start their junior year in the fall, and the slightly younger girl would never put herself at a step under anyone.
It was merely a ploy to stop Mia from teasing her with the freaky-looking street food. She tucked the skewer back into the tall wooden display and looped her arm through Becky’s. “Let’s go see if we can find something you actually want to try,” she said.
They made their way further into the bustling night market. When they had planned their trip here, Mia had envisioned Shanghai being cooler than the summer weather back home. Instead, the temperature earlier in the day had soared over ninety degrees, and the high humidity made the air thick and steamy. Once the sun had set, the humidity had finally eased and the temperature fell, making it far more comfortable to roam around the vibrant market.
Or at least not as sticky.
The atmosphere was invigorating. Music played, and layers of voices added to the sounds and smells, creating the backdrop for hundreds of people weaving around the stalls and tiny shops. Their energy fed off each other in an almost dizzying experience, unlike anything Mia or Becky had ever seen.
Coming to a new country for the first time had been a culture shock, but somehow being in the market made them feel like part of something bigger. They were among the throng of people, each trying to take it all in. As chaotic and intense as it was, it was also unifying somehow.
Children picked out treats from carts peddling elaborate handcrafted sweets. Mysterious smells, some enticing, some strange, lured people to stalls offering an overwhelming array of food, from the creepy speared creatures to adorable buns crafted to look like little animals.
Women ogled gorgeous fabrics and tried on clothes, while others scoured tightly packed displays of trinkets and collectibles. All around them, languages mixed, bouncing back and forth. People who didn’t understand a word of what each other were saying still communicated and laughed. Nearby, an old woman grinned as she clutched a young tourist’s hand, and Mia’s heart warmed. It was a reminder that ultimately, they were all the same.
She had no way of knowing she was about to discover it wasn’t true. Moving among the crowds, she was different.
“How about one of those?” Becky asked, pointing to a nearby stall.
Mia studied the bamboo basket filled with steamed buns in the shape of panda bears. She smiled and nodded. Using some of the words their instructor taught them leading up to the trip, they each ordered a bear.
Mia’s teeth sank into the soft dough and found the sweet chocolate paste inside. “Good choice,” she said, nodding.
They continued on their stroll, nibbling their way through the buns. Becky stared at hers for a second, then grinned at Mia. “Can you imagine if your dad was here?” she asked.
Mia chuckled. “He would have eaten everything by now,” she said. “He would have just started at the first stall and made his way through, trying something at each one.”
“How far do you think he would have made it before we needed to roll him back to the hotel?” Becky snickered.
“Halfway down the street,” Mia said. “Then he’d just come back tomorrow to try the rest.”
A hint of sadness lay behind the amusement. She felt homesick and missed her father. This was the longest time she had ever been away from him. Her mother died when she was only a baby, and Mia had no memories of her. All she had ever known was it being only the two of them.
The sad feeling didn’t last for long, though. She caught Becky staring across the street and at Brad, who hesitated at a nearby stand trying to build up his courage to eat a fried scorpion. Another of the high schoolers in China for the Wushu tournament, Brad was also Becky’s secret crush. Mia knew her best friend had been studying the form of Chinese Kung Fu long before she met Brad. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a bonus.
“Go talk to him,” Mia urged.
Becky shook her head. Her attention shifted from Brad to the remainder of the bun in her hand, but then drifted back to him. “I can’t,” she whispered.
“Why not? He’s right there. Like,”—she counted out an estimation—“nine steps away.”
Becky sighed. “What do I do? Just walk up to him and be like ‘Hi, Brad’ or what?” She spoke as if it was the most absurd concept she’d ever heard.
Mia blinked. “Yes,” she said. “That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.”
“I can’t do that!” Becky gasped.
“Because it’s Brad. He doesn’t even know I exist.” She threw her hands in the air in exasperation.
“You kicked him in the face when he was standing too close behind you at practice two weeks ago. Then you traveled in the same group with him to China. Pretty sure he knows you exist.” Mia laughed at her friend’s silliness.
Becky groaned and covered her eyes with one hand. “Oh, Buddha. I was trying to erase that whole kicking-him thing from my memory,” she said. “Thanks for reminding me.”
Mia pressed her hand to Becky’s back and turned her toward the group of guys all daring each other to eat the scorpions.
“Look at them. They’re all having fun and taking in the new experience. Go join them.”
“I’m not eating a scorpion,” Becky said firmly.
“You don’t have to. Just go talk to him. Tell him he did a good job at practice this morning or something. You know if you don’t, you’ll regret it.” The older of the two girls cast a knowing look at the boys in front of them.
Becky took a resolute breath and crossed the street toward the group. Mia lingered in place so she could watch. Becky approached the stall beside the one where the boys gathered, and she pretended to inspect the items on display. She shifted sideways a few inches, paused, then crept over a few more. This continued until she bounced into Brad. He stumbled slightly, then turned around to face Becky. His wide grin elicited one from Becky, and just like that, the other guys were forgotten.
“My work here is done,” Mia murmured.
They still had plenty of time before they were due back at the hotel for lights out. Which meant Mia could do some exploring of the market on her own. Becky would catch up with her eventually.
Mia continued along the same road, browsing the numerous items for sale. Soon the tightly packed stalls thinned out, many replaced by permanent shop buildings. The boisterous crowds had lessened. Mia moved more slowly through this area so she could peek through shop windows and get a glimpse of what was inside.
One particular shop intrigued her. The building appeared to be ancient, and something about it caught her attention. She had taken a step toward it when the door opened and the time-worn face of an old woman appeared. She beckoned to Mia with her outstretched hand.
“Come inside,” the woman called out. Mia hesitated, and the woman beckoned again. “No afraid. Come,” she said in broken English.
Mia allowed her curiosity to guide her. She walked across the street as the old woman disappeared through the door. A heady, spicy scent wafted out at her when Mia opened the door and slipped into the shop. Inside was a concentrated version of the market. Shelves towering nearly to the ceiling held exquisite teapots, cups, ornate boxes, and other objects. Tables laden with even more curios were arranged with narrow passages between them.
She inhaled the competing aromas that confirmed this was a tea shop, but something about the place wasn’t quite like the others they had already visited on their tour. A few steps into the shop, she realized the old woman wasn’t in the room.
“Hello?” she called.
Rich silks hung from the walls, draped casually to create different segments in the shop. Mia made her way through the first section and passed lush peacock-blue fabric trimmed with gold tassels, into a second area. This part of the shop was somewhat calmer than the first, but with so much going on, it was impossible to decide where to look first.
“Here,” the woman called from further in the shop.
Mia followed the sound of her voice and finally ducked through the purple drapes hanging over the entrance to the last room. The old woman sat on a cushion on the floor beside a low table.
“Your shop is amazing,” Mia said.
The old woman gestured to the cushion across from her. “Join me.”
Mia lowered herself onto the cushion and studied the traditional tea service laid out in front of them. An intoxicating smell rose up from the pot.
“I’m Mia,” she said.
“How do you know?”
The woman offered a wise smile as she filled Mia’s cup. “I wait for you come. You call me Grandmother.” She touched the edge of the cup. “Here. Drink.”
“What do you mean you’ve been waiting for me?” Mia asked.
The encounter felt strange and part of her wanted to leave, but something else was keeping her there. As odd as the interaction was, it was also intriguing. She wanted to know more.
“Drink,” Grandmother said again. “Unique in all China.”
Mia picked up the cup and brought it to her lips. The strong, spicy scent filled her lungs before she even took a sip. The flavor rushed over her tongue and burned in her throat, but as soon as it was gone from her mouth, she wanted more.
She drained the cup, and Grandmother filled it again. The second went down well, but her head started to swim. Squeezing her eyes closed, Mia waited for the feeling to pass. When she opened her eyes, Grandmother was gone.
“Hello?” she called. “Grandmother?” The shop was silent. Mia carefully set the cup back on the table and stood. She wobbled a bit before righting herself. “Thanks for the tea,” she called. “I have to get back and meet up with the rest of my group. Goodnight.”
A tingling sensation crept through her body until it felt like her fingertips should be glowing. The shop was different now as she made her way out. Everything was familiar, but she noticed colors and patterns which hadn’t been there before. She told herself it had to be the smells of the herbs and teas getting to her. Fresh air would clear her head.
Mia stumbled through the tea shop door and back out onto the street. The air felt cooler as she drew it deep into her lungs. Letting it out slowly, she waited for the effects to wear off. A flicker of movement to one side caught her attention.
She squinted in the direction of the movement and thought she saw the flash of something black scramble over the edge of a nearby building and disappear onto the roof. A growl sounded behind, and she whipped around. Something glowed in the shadowy space between two nearby buildings. The eyes grew bigger as the thing closed in on her, and long, spindly fingers snaked out to creep across the front of the shop.
Fantastic, she thought. Trust me to get myself drugged in a foreign country. Everybody else will be competing, and I’ll become a public service announcement. The way everything looked, like a Pink Floyd video, with scary shadows which couldn’t be real, Mia suspected that the tea had to have been laced with something. But she couldn’t figure it out. All she wanted to do was find Becky and get back to the hotel.
Their coach had warned them many times not to separate. She should have listened to him instead of leaving Becky to flirt with Brad.
She tried shutting her eyes again, but this time the creature didn’t disappear when she opened them. It was coming closer and soon strode out of the gap. It appeared almost human, but with disproportionately long arms, legs, and fingers. Long hair hung around a face with huge glowing eyes. Fear gripped Mia, and she ran back toward the crowd. Hallucination or not, she simply wanted to get away from it.
The creature followed close behind her, moving along the front of the buildings. No one else seemed to notice it. Ahead of her, dark purple smoke streamed from either side of the street, joining together to create a mass that blocked her way. The cloud turned solid and writhed, suddenly turning to reveal the massive face of a snake, with sharp, gruesome teeth.
Mia stumbled backward away from the snake, then turned to run in the opposite direction. The creature with the glowing eyes took a step toward her, and she made her choice. She rushed full speed toward the snake, only for it to become a puff of smoke when she got close. The busy part of the night market wasn’t far ahead. If she could just get there quickly, she could find Becky, return to the hotel, and sleep this off.
The creature was closing in on her, and still no one noticed. A narrow area forced her to slow down, and she felt fingertips trace her spine. An instant later, a woman grabbed her wrist and yanked her behind an empty stall.
The woman pushed her to the ground and stood to look back toward the creature. She was armed with a strange-looking weapon which she pointed at the monster. No one gasped or screamed. Mia had expected a reaction to a woman brandishing a weapon—something resembling a crossbow strung with a long dagger—at the edge of a crowded market. Yet no pandemonium ensued.
“Crickets. He’s gone,” the woman said. She crouched beside Mia and searched her face. “Are you all right?”
“You could see that thing?” Mia asked.
The woman studied Mia, her expression strange. “Of course. I’ve been after it for a long time. Troublesome creatures, boggarts.”
“Boggart?” Mia asked. “What is that? Why couldn’t anyone else see it?”
“Did you hit your head? Humans can’t see boggarts. Or any of what they think of as mythological creatures, for that matter. Makes it easier to do my job, I suppose.” Cassia shrugged.
Mia’s head was reeling. She didn’t understand what this woman meant when she’d said humans couldn’t see the creature which Mia had just clearly seen and been chased by. And what other creatures? That tea must have been seriously strong.
“What job?” she asked.
The woman extended a hand with a friendly grin.
“I’m Cassia, the best bounty hunter of the fae.”
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