Francesca shivered and looked back down at the girl. She was still young enough that her cuteness acted as a sort of self-preservation, but how could the Smedge, a giant who incinerates human parts for a living, possibly have a soft corner for a human child?
“I’m hungry. Can we go get ice cream?”
The rogue fairy blinked at the human child and grinned. “Why not?” If she was going to see the Smedge tonight, she’d need all the fortification she could get! They took their leave of Peregrin and his shop, heading toward the carnival outside, back in the human world. Francesca changed them back to their regular sizes before they landed on the ground.
“We should wear costumes before getting ice cream,” Francesca told Shu-Lin, thinking of the Dusters that would be looking for them. “What do you want to dress up as?”
“Batman!” Shu-Lin yelled, brown eyes sparkling with delight.
The girl’s jaw dropped. “You don’t know who Batman is?”
Francesca sighed and put her hand to Shu-Lin’s temple, plucking the image of this Batman from her memories. She was spending a lot of magic tonight. With a few flicks of her hand, Francesca put a shimmer over Shu-Lin and gave her the desired costume. Feeling a bit tired, she just made her wings look fake and her hair a bright lime green. Perfect for a carnival. They would fit right in.
Ten minutes later, the two of them were walking underneath the bright lights and weaving through the crowds, licking two very tall ice cream cones. Shu-Lin kept repeating how hers was “A whole foot long!” in wonder.
“How old are you, Shu-Lin?” Francesca was curious.
“Ten. Just kidding. I’m five.” Shu-Lin grinned, showing her missing tooth.
“Ah, so you’re starting school soon, aren’t you?”
“I can already write my name really well!” She crouched down and starting scratching in the dirt. It looked like a bunch of 8’s and lower-case B’s when she was done.
“You can’t read it because it’s Korean,” Shu-Lin said proudly.
“Are you sure?” Francesca had her doubts.
“Of course! I am very expert in Korean.” She gave her ice cream cone a lick all the way around.
“But you were born here?”
“Yeah, my mommy and daddy like it here. I like it too, because Bobby and Nahla and Suzuna are here.”
“We’re going to ride the bus together soon! And I have a lunchbox already! Oh!” Shu-Lin did a little skip. “Do fairies go to school too?”
Francesca tripped and very nearly dropped the ice cream off of her cone. “Only if we make a really big mistake, Shu-Lin. Our schools aren’t nice like yours will be.”
“You don’t get recess?” Shu-Lin’s eyes went wide in sympathy.
"That’s not what I meant. Let’s finish these and go.”
The girl agreed, and for a few minutes they ate their ice cream in silence. When all that was left was a sticky mess around her companion’s face, Francesca said, “Do you like fireworks, Shu-Lin?”
It was a stretch to call the Smedge’s business fireworks, but Francesca thought it was close enough. She had only been to the Smedge’s once with her mentor, when she was being trained as a tooth collector. She never thought she would return. It was a long flight, up a mountain and down the cavern stairs, into the Smedge’s cave. Once inside that cave, you could see the enormous anvil, a shadow in front of the great furnace that never stopped burning. Then you saw the Smedge’s shadow flung up on the wall and onto the ceiling. Sparks flying as she swung her hammer down. Smedge’s hair, thin and dangling down her neck. Her stooped shoulders, and claw-like hands with long fingers and nails. Her pale gray eyes that squinted and popped in turn. No, Francesca never thought she would be desperate enough to go back.
She still thought it was a bad idea, even as they were climbing down the steps to the cavern. And as she stepped up to the anvil with Shu-Lin’s tooth in one hand and Shu-Lin’s hand in the other, she definitely thought she had gone positively doolally to have come at all.
The Smedge stopped her hammer and turned towards them, sweat dribbling down her sooty chin. She squinted. “Unusual time for a delivery.” Her voice was loud, booming and echoing in the cave.
Francesca squeezed Shu-Lin’s hand. “I have a tooth for you.”
“Not from the bank?” The hammer was put down with a small crash.
“No. I was hoping we could do business more directly.” Francesca tried to speak up and hide the tremor in her voice.
“Let’s see it.” The Smedge bent down to their level, eyes opening wider and wider to see the small, gleaming tooth in the fairy’s hand. “It’s not bad. Five for it.”
“Only five? This- this is a fine tooth here!”
“You want to pay more for it?” The Smedge raised an eyebrow.
“You pay me, I turn the tooth into dust. Don’t tell me you didn’t know.”
Francesca’s mind turned into a blank, white slate, through which panics and worries started swirling about like a snow storm. This detail of the business she had forgotten. She remembered her mentor saying how the price of fairy dust was far more than gold, but having been terrified during the whole lecture that was given at the Smedge’s cave, it hadn’t made much of an impression. She let go of Shu-Lin and dug her hand into her purse. She only had five pieces.
“Or, I can take it and keep the dust,” the Smedge suggested, sounding exasperated. “Stop wasting my time.”
“No! No, I need the dust!” Francesca wasn’t going to last long without the fairy dust, especially with how much she’d been spending with Shu-Lin. She needed the gold too, but the dust was far more important.
“I don’t have all night.” The Smedge’s patience, already thin, was at its limit.
“Five gold pieces, and I keep the dust.” Francesca said, digging out the gold. “It’s fair.” With more dust, she could do odd jobs for whatever money she needed. The Smedge held out her large hand, which was almost as large as Francesca herself. The poor little fairy gulped.
In her scramble to get the gold pieces out of her purse quickly, Francesca fumbled and ended up taking longer than necessary. The Smedge growled. Francesca dropped a gold piece.
And then, she dropped the tooth.
“YOU CLUMSY NITWIT!” the Smedge roared. “I have work to do! Stop wasting my time!” She picked up Francesca and held her upside down, shaking the gold out. Four more gold pieces fell.
“I’m sorry!” Francesca squeaked.
“All this bother over one stupid tooth! Maybe if you’d brought me two or three it’d be worth it,” the Smedge ranted. “But no, you come in here and bother me over one tiny thing! That’s all any of you do! Bother, whine, and nag!”
The light from the furnace flickered on the Smedge’s sweaty face and her dead, gray eyes. “Might as well turn you into dust. One less fairy.”
The Smedge turned her head in surprise toward Shu-Lin, whom she hadn’t really noticed before. The batman costume had worked wonders in the dark cave.
“Don’t be mean to Francesca!” Shu-Lin pulled her cheek to one side with a finger, and wiggled a loose tooth. “You can take this!”
“Don’t! It’s not ready to come out yet!” Francesca struggled in the Smedge’s grip.
“Two for the price of one?” the Smedge asked, eyes narrowing.
“You can keep this one for free!” the little girl promised.
The Smedge nodded. “Agreed.”
Shu-Lin grabbed hold of her loose tooth, and yanked. It didn’t come out. She nursed her jaw. “Ow!”
“Stop, you don’t have to do that!” Francesca begged.
Shu-Lin took a deep breath and yanked again, twisting and wiggling the tooth this time. The tooth came free. Bright drops of red blood dripped onto her little hand.
“Good...” the Smedge took the tooth and dropped Francesca. She picked up her hammer and turned towards the anvil once more.
Francesca fell to the floor and half-hobbled, half-flew back to Shu-Lin, hugging her in a tight squeeze. “Oh, you darling thing! I’m so sorry!”
“Are you okay now?”
“Yes, I’m okay.” Francesca felt like crying. Human children were so surprising. She blinked rapidly and stood up.
The Smedge’s hand swept up the second tooth and Francesca’s last gold pieces. With her hammer, she smashed Shu-Lin’s teeth, one at a time, and dropped the pieces in what looked like a frying pan. She opened the door to her furnace, yellow, white, and blue flames roaring inside, and placed the frying pan in, shutting the door behind it. The Smedge turned a knob on an old fashioned rotating kitchen timer, setting it to thirty seconds. It ticked and rang with a ding.
The Smedge took the pan out, and tipped half of its sparkling contents into a clear little bag. She handed it to Francesca with a grunt and waved her hand in a shooing motion.
Francesca put the bag, nice and plump, in her empty purse and took Shu-Lin’s little hand. “I’ve got to take you home now.”