“Oh!” Francesca squeaked. She had never had any interaction with a human child before and was quite surprised at the girl’s strength. She was already extending a pudgy finger toward a row of clear jars holding various items floating in liquid.
“What’s that?” she asked, jabbing her finger at a jar of what looked to be eye balls floating in a swirling yellow-tinged liquid.
Peregrin moved swiftly to his wall of merchandise and pulled the child’s hand away.
“That, my dear,” he said silkily, “is my collection of elf eyes. They contain many magical properties, depending on their color and age.”
“You mean like Santa’s elves?” she asked, her brow furrowed in a look of horror.
“No, no, no child,” Peregrin muttered, shifting her toward where Francesca stood. “Everyone knows that Sinterklaas only employs Frisheid elves. They are much too expensive for a humble shop owner like myself.”
Peregrin guided the child over to where Francesca was hovering anxiously by the door.
“I’m so sorry, Peregrin,” she said, taking the girl’s hand again in hers.
“No worries,” he replied, but he continued to watch the girl warily, as though she may cause a catastrophe in his shop merely by standing there.
“Peregrin, this is…” Francesca stopped in mid-introduction. “Wait, that’s funny. I don’t know your name, child.”
The girl looked up at her with large brown eyes. “My name is Shu-Lin,” she said. “Is this where we sell my tooth?”
“Goodness!” cried Peregrin. “Aren’t you a smart one!” He then appraised the girl with an even brighter gleam in his eyes.
“My friend Nahla says the tooth fairy builds her castle with our teeth, but Bobby says that’s stupid, why would a fairy build a castle out of teeth. And Lilly says the tooth fairy isn’t real ‘cause she saw her mamma putting a quarter under her pillow one night, and I told her that the tooth fairy IS real and I was right!”
“You were right, indeed!” Peregrin exclaimed, placing a withered hand on Shu-Lin’s shoulder. “Now, shall we look at this tooth of yours?”
Francesca pulled the tiny tooth from the pouch on her belt. She held it out to the older fairy to inspect. He pulled a pair of pince-nez from his breast pocket and placed the spectacles onto his nose. Shu-Lin giggled when she saw how enlarged the fairy’s eyes appeared through the lenses.
“A fine specimen, indeed,” he said, turning the tooth over in the palm of his hand. “I will give you three gold pieces for it.”
“Three gold pieces!” Francesca cried. “I can get twice that at the Artifact Bank!”
“Then I suggest you take it to the Bank. I run a business here, you know.”
“I can’t take it to the Bank,” Francesca muttered. “They would cart me off to School before I even made it to the front desk.”
“Ah, I see,” Peregrin said, nodding slightly. “I was wondering how you came to be in company with this stow-away.”
“I just panicked,” Francesca said quickly. ‘I love being a tooth collector. I didn’t want to have to start over again with an assignment that is someone else’s idea of what’s appropriate for me. I want to make my own choices.”
“Well, it appears that you have made your choice. Now you must do something with the girl.” Peregrin looked pointedly at Shu-Lin, who had once again slipped away and was curiously poking at a miniature wart-hog that was snorting in a twisted silver cage. “Careful, child, you don’t want to be bitten by a narflblat. His venom will leave you seeing purple for days.”
“Ooh! I love purple!” Shu-Lin squealed, and continued to poke at the creature.
Peregrin turned back to Francesca. “Dearie, what were you hoping to accomplish? You can’t keep the human child forever, she will need to go back home.”
Francesca’s arms dropped to her sides dejectedly. “I know that. But I don’t know what to do,” she wailed.
Peregrin walked over to Shu-Lin, who had already moved on from the wart-hog to a bowl of green slime that simmered and bubbled on the countertop, her nose pressed up to the edge of the bowl as close as she could get. Taking her chin in his hand, he looked closely at the girl’s face.
“Open your mouth, child,” he commanded and the girl obeyed without even thinking.
“Peregrin, no!” Francesca stuttered, fluttering over to where the two were standing, the old fairy hunched over and looking into the girl’s mouth.
“So, so tempting,” he murmured. “So many artifacts in pristine condition, just sitting here waiting to fall out of her mouth. We could just hurry a few along…”
Francesca grabbed Shu-Lin by the arm and pulled her back toward the door.
“Francesca, have some sense. The child is walking around with a small fortune in her mouth, not to mention those silky locks of hair. You know that I am not the first who will suggest you take advantage of the situation you are in.”
“Shu-Lin is not for sale, and neither are her teeth or hair, as long as they are attached to her.” The fairy stood protectively in front of the girl, shielding her from the older fairy’s reach.
"Oh, have it your way, my dear. You know I can’t resist a little business venture.”
Seeing the look of disgust on Francesca’s face, the old fairy amended his statement. “Very well then, I suggest you take the young lady and her tooth to the Smedge. You have more bartering power with fairy dust itself than in gold pieces.”
“Take the girl to the Smedge? Are you crazy? She could incinerate her on the spot!” Francesca exclaimed.
Peregrin replied thoughtfully. “Other than taking the child immediately home, do you really have any other options?”
Francesca thought about what Peregrin suggested. The Smedge was an ancient giant whom the fairies paid to incinerate human artifacts so as to turn them into magical fairy dust. Fairy dust was the source of all the fairy’s magic. Without it, fairies would be weak. They could still fly, but they would be as fragile as an insect and have a greatly reduced lifespan. There were fairies at the Artifact Bank who acted as the go-between, taking the human artifacts to the Smedge. It was the most dangerous and prestigious position a fairy could hold, for the Smedge often lost her temper and more than a few fairies were thrown into her incineration fire along with the artifacts. To take the child to the Smedge was dangerous, so dangerous. But it was the only way she could get enough value from the child’s tooth to last her until Francesca knew what to do next. It was either that or take the girl home.
But that wasn’t an option. Francesca was not going to be carted off to School.