impassively. I wondered if it was entirely an accident that the monkey dripped juice directly onto the child’s head.

“That’s a spider monkey,” the Amazon said helpfully.

“We also have a few capuchins and marmosets,” the ersatz Michael added, pointing to another corner of the lobby, where Amazon guards of assorted sizes and shapes were poking brooms and floor mops up into the overhanging vines. Nearby, a bellhop perched on a ladder, holding a half-peeled banana, in a vain attempt to lure one of the monkeys closer.

“Fascinating,” Michael said, sounding less enthusiastic this time. Or maybe he was just holding his breath. You could tell by the smell that the monkeys and parrots had been around for a while.

“Apparently the monkey-proof cages weren’t,” the young man said.

“We need to get Michael on stage,” the Amazon said.

They scurried along, clearing a path before Michael. I followed along, snapping photos and trying to be reasonably unobtrusive, since I was the last person the female fans wanted to see. I usually tried to find something else to do while Michael played Mephisto.

This weekend, when I wasn’t wielding the digital camera, I planned to sell my swords and other ironwork in the dealers’ room. Porfiria fans spent vast sums of money at these shindigs, on anything even vaguely related to the show. Surely, after they’d bought their fill of Porfiria action figures and autographed cast photos, a few would have money left to buy real, live swords. Worth a try, anyway, since the experiment would cost next to nothing. My only expense would be half the rental on the booth I’d share with another swordsmith.

I trailed along, watching the various costumed Amblyopians bow to each other and pose for pictures in front of the jungle foliage. I wondered if I had time to duck into the dealers’ room to see my booth. Maybe now would be a good time to check with Alaric Steele, the other swordsmith. But then I saw a sight I’d hoped to avoid.

A semicircle of about twenty fans were snapping pictures of two people in particularly elaborate costumes. The tall, stately blond woman wore an Amblyopian court headdress, designed to let the home viewer tell immediately how important a female guest star was by the number of purple plumes flopping around on her head. This particular headdress had denuded two average-sized ostriches, and its wearer would need someone to carry the ten foot train of her purple brocade dress. Beside her stood a short, round figure clad in the black velvet robes that marked him as a magician, carrying the snake-trimmed staff of one who specializes in the healing arts, and wearing a purple feathered turban that didn’t resemble anything I could recall seeing on the show, but did look rather striking while disguising his bald head.

I tried to disappear into the shrubbery, but the healing magician spotted me and bounded nimbly through the crowd to my hiding place.

“Meg! What do you think!” he said, twirling in front of me.

“Very nice, Dad,” I said. “I see you and Mother were serious about coming to the convention.”

Chapter 4

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Dad said, obligingly striking a pose for a passing camera. Of course not; when had any member of my family ever passed up an opportunity to wear a silly costume in public?

Mother, whose train prevented her from skipping through the crowd, turned and waved from across the room. I noticed that she’d gotten quite good at the sort of genteel wave favored by the British royal family, a barely perceptible twist of the wrist that one could keep up for the entire duration of a parade with minimal risk of repetitive motion injury. And she’d already acquired parrot protection in the form of a purple umbrella.

My ten-year-old nephew, Eric, appeared in front of us, dressed as an Amblyopian knight, though most of his oversized armor looked as if he’d borrowed it from one of his older brothers. At first glance, I thought he was dragging a bundle of spare ostrich plumes behind him, but on closer examination I recognized a small dog, his blackand-white fur almost totally obscured by a headpiece of purple feathers.

“I see you brought Spike,” I remarked, without enthusiasm.

“Grandma says for you to keep him, Grandpa,” Eric said, handing Dad the leash. “I’m going to go carry her dress.”

Eric trotted back to resume his post, and he and Mother swept off toward the ballroom. Eric obviously considered it a point of pride to hold the train as high as possible, and I was relieved to see that Mother, perhaps anticipating this, had accessorized her outfit with only the most elegant frilly purple lingerie.

“Come on, Meg,” Dad said, seizing the leash. “You’ve got to see what I found.”

Spike didn’t seem to mind his change of handlers. He appeared totally absorbed in staring cross-eyed at the plumes over his head and intermittently growling at them. I couldn’t tell if he was moving his feet, or Dad was simply towing him gently across the polished lobby floor.

I followed Dad, trying to keep him from actually thwacking anyone with his magician’s staff, until we arrived at a small side room whose entrance had been decorated to simulate the opening of a small jungle cave. Dad darted inside, ducking low to clear the overhanging foliage, and I followed more slowly.

“Look what I found!” he exclaimed, waving his staff. “This is Salome!”

“That’s nice, Dad,” I said, following his gesture. “But I don’t think Mother will let you keep her.”

Salome was a full grown tiger.

“Fascinating,” Dad murmured, staring into the cat’s eyes.

“Don’t put your hands near the cage,” said a man nearby. Presumably Salome’s keeper.

“No intention of it,” I said, and I got a grip on the back of Dad’s robe, in case Salome’s unwavering stare was having an hypnotic effect.

Salome blinked, and shifted her gaze up to the ceiling, where several monkeys and a parrot perched on the light fixtures, watching her. The monkeys chattered, nervously. I don’t suppose it occurred to the silly things that if they didn’t like sharing the room with a tiger, they could leave—she couldn’t. Salome’s mouth curled back as if she were snarling, but no sound emerged.

I pulled out my camera with the hand that wasn’t holding Dad back and snapped a few quick shots of Salome’s snarl.

Spike suddenly stopped snapping at his plumes and noticed Salome. He burst into growls and barks.

Salome dropped her gaze to Spike. Was I only imagining the mild annoyance in her previously inscrutable amber eyes?

“Don’t let him go,” Salome’s keeper warned. “Salome could kill him with one swipe of her paw, and gobble him up before I could get the cage open.”

“Promises, promises,” I said. I shushed Spike, and he subsided into muted growls.

“Stand back!” the keeper snapped.

“We are,” I said, tugging Dad a little farther away.

“Wasn’t me,” the keeper said, and pointed at a gray parrot perching overhead.

“Stand back!” the parrot repeated, in an uncannily accurate imitation of the keeper’s voice.

“Amazing!” Dad said, shifting his admiration to the parrot. “I would never have guessed that wasn’t you.”

“African Grey,” the keeper said. “They’re the most talented mimics. A cockatoo or an Amazon usually sounds more like your stereotyped ‘Polly want a cracker.’ An African Grey could fool your own mother into thinking it was you.”

I suddenly realized what my own mother would think if Dad brought home a parrot, however talented.

“We should go,” I said, plucking Dad’s sleeve.

Just then the parrot trilled a scrap of Vivaldi in the chirping tones of a cell phone.

“It doesn’t just do voices,” Dad exclaimed, with delight.

“An African Grey can do just about any noise,” the keeper said. “Electronic noises are easy—a lot like the shrieks they use in the wild to communicate with the rest of the flock. I just hope this one’s never heard a car alarm. And I’d appreciate it if you could take the dog away before it learns to do him.”

“Surely it couldn’t learn anything that quickly,” Dad said.

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