Thirsty for Thursday – The Shifting Price of Prey

Fans of our Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page will know that every Thursday we bring you #ThirstyforThursday in which we reveal a book or series which we think you will be Thirsty for. This week, we’re sharing the fourth installment of Suzanne Mcleod‘s Spellcrackers series, THE SHIFTING PRICE OF PREY, with you. The Spellcrackers series stars fabulous fae Genny Taylor, and in the fourth book, Genny believed she’d cracked the fae’s infertility curse . . . but the fae are still barren. It’s a devastating plight to which the mysterious Emperor may have the solution – if Genny can find him.

Read the first chapter below and head on over to the Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page for a giveaway later today.

Chapter One

The garden fairy was as desiccated as a dead frog squashed by a passing car and left to dry in the summer sun. Its claw-tipped appendages, stringy arms and legs, big bulbous eyes and wide slash of a mouth made it look even more amphibian-like. With its large gossamer wings folded down its back, it wasn’t much bigger than a frog either, so there was plenty of room in the plastic sandwich box that served as its makeshift coffin.

Though, as I adjusted the angle of the lamp and bent over the marble-topped desk to peer closer, I noted, of course, that ‘it’ wasn’t correct. Judging by the lack of neck-frill, and the corkscrew-shaped penis pointing down past the fairy’s knees— ‘it’ was a ‘he’.

And ‘he’ was a perfect example of why September – mating season for garden fairies – is called the screaming month.

Except this was the middle of June.

Hatching time, not mating time.

The fairy’s death was a freak of nature— if I was to believe my ‘client’, Mr Lampy.

‘More like a freaking scam,’ I muttered, hoping my coworker was digging up some much needed dirt during his sneaky look round, because so far, when it came to the dead garden fairy, Mr Lampy was looking annoyingly squeaky clean.

Regrettably the same couldn’t be said for his house.

I shot a disgusted glance around me. The large high-ceilinged room was home to a mismatched collection of wooden junk-shop furniture that was hosting enough multicoloured fungi to devour a dead forest. The whole ground floor of the house was the same. Considering the Victorian terrace was in fashionable Primrose Hill, London’s celebrity-studded urban village, and had to be worth a good couple of million, it made for an unlikely combination. Of course, Mr Lampy was ancient so he’d probably been here longer than the house, or even the village, itself. Once a gnome’s settled their manor, it takes a lot to uproot them.

Not to mention that Primrose Hill (the actual park) has always been a major breeding site for garden fairies, and still was, judging by the occupants of the other eight sandwich-box coffins stacked to my left. The small creatures have long been valued by those with green fingers – like gnomes – as nature’s magical helper. While the fairies are alive and zipping.

Dead, they have another use, one that is illegal without a licence.

My job was to issue the licence, but only if the fairy’s death was natural, not induced.

I picked up the padded kitchen tongs next to the box and carefully turned the fairy over, the acid-free tissue paper beneath him rustling as I did. Despite looking like sun-dried roadkill, there were no obvious injuries to his little body. I reached out to gently lift his chin—

A low growl stopped me.

I squinted left into the unblinking, warning glare of the large ginger cat sitting to attention on the desk, the tip of its tail twitching over its front paws. The cat was close enough that I could see a tiny reflection of my angular features in its dark oval pupils. I glared back, my own catlike sidhe pupils no doubt mimicking the animal’s in the dimly lit room. Not that my glare fazed the huge ginger tom one bit. But then my maternal grandmother is a sidhe queen – something I’d learned only recently. I was still coming to terms with it since my queenly grandmother liked me a whole lot less than the cat appeared to – so maybe the cat’s unconcern was apt.

‘I’m wearing gloves, puss.’ I waggled my latex-covered fingers in front of its disapproving face. ‘I know better than to contaminate the merchandise, scam or not.’

It continued to give me the evil-feline stare, and I sighed. Why the hell I was talking to a cat anyway? It wasn’t like it could answer back; it was just one of the gnome’s trained gun-dogs, or rather gun-cats, used to retrieve dead fairies like the one in front of me before male-member shrinkage rendered it worthless.
Awareness prickled down my spine and I turned, expecting to find the gnome doing a lecherous eyeball of my arse from the doorway.

But the large room was devoid of life . . .

If, that is, you discounted the other dozen or so cats that made up the gnome’s clowder of fairy-finding felines, and the floor-to-ceiling shelves full of variously sized plastic boxes and glass tanks that held the gnome’s stock. Not all of which was as lifeless as the fairy in front of me and some of which had their own creepy eyeballs.

I opened the metaphysical part of me that sees the magic, and looked, repeating the check I’d done on arrival. But the only active spells were the Buffer spell in the tiny crystal stuck to my phone and the mega-strength Knock-back Wards buzzing like electrified bars over the room’s tall sash windows. With all his stock, it wasn’t a surprise the gnome took security seriously.

I shrugged the ‘watching eyes’ feeling off, blaming it on the creepsville house and returned my attention to the dead fairy. I angled the light and this time ignored the cat’s growl as I lifted the fairy’s little chin. Sure enough his throat had been slit; a long slash from ear to ear. A wound that would have killed him instantly at the height of his frenzied fairy ecstasy.

The noisy slap-slap of bare feet on wooden boards signalled the gnome’s imminent return. I pulled off the surgical gloves with a snap, tucked them into my jacket pocket, and sat down quickly on the overstuffed guest chair.

‘Refreshments, Ms Taylor,’ the gnome said as he bustled into the room. He rounded the desk and placed a tea tray covered in a lace-edged cloth next to the fairy’s plastic coffin.

I stifled a shudder. Small yellow-green things speared through with cocktail sticks had been stuck hedgehog-like into a tin-foiled potato; they were still writhing. The sickly sweet smell steaming from the cup and saucer wasn’t any more appetising. Only the opaque lumps of what looked like unpolished quartz seemed vaguely edible.

‘Mead-soaked slugs. Nettle tea with lavender blossom honey, and raw sugar crystals.’ The wrinkles in the gnome’s round face deepened as he beamed, nearly blinding me with the brilliance of his ultra-white human dentures.

Vodka, bacon sandwiches and liquorice torpedoes are more my snack of choice, but even if he’d offered those I wouldn’t have trusted them. I’d only agreed to his ‘refreshments’ so I could examine the fairy without having the gnome’s beady little eyes crawling all over me. He’d spent the whole time since I’d arrived addressing my chest – and not just because it was on a level with his face. Nor because I have much to address; I’m slender, verging on skinny. And this not being my first visit, I’d deliberately covered up, buttoning my shirt to the neck and wearing the jacket of my business suit, despite it being too warm in the summer weather. Irritatingly, it hadn’t stopped him ogling. Or copping a feel of my butt as he’d ushered me in (which got him a swift elbow to the temple; annoyingly it only made his ogling more enthusiastic). So the idea of checking out the dead fairy while he watched was way too icky.

‘Thank you, Mr Lampy,’ I said politely, since even if he was currently suspect he had paid the fee up front so was, until proved otherwise, a client, though not one I wanted any of my staff subjected to. ‘But the glass of water I asked for would’ve been fine.’

‘Ah, but I know this is what you fairies like, Ms Taylor.’ He pushed the plate towards me, the edges of the mustard-coloured lichen mapping his bald pate crinkling with encouragement.

‘I’m sidhe fae, Mr Lampy,’ I said, more sharply and less patiently than I had the first three times I’d corrected him. ‘Sidhe fae are not related to garden fairies.’ Something you’d think a gnome, one of the Others should know. ‘We have more genes in common with an ordinary human than a chimpanzee does. While garden fairies are more closely related to insects and amphibians.’

‘Of course they are.’ He gave me a sly wink and tapped the sandwich box. ‘But these little beauties can tap into the magic, much as you yourself can, unlike even the most extraordinary of humans.’ He clasped his fat little hands and rested them on his shirt-straining pot belly. ‘It’s what makes them so desirable.’

Ugh. Dried garden fairy parts – smoked, snorted, imbibed or injected – are the equivalent of magical Viagra, and not just in the obvious, sexual way, but in the boosting-your-magical¬abilities way. The resulting power spike is said to be a hundred times better than sugar (the standard way to amp up magic), a phenomenon discovered in 1835 by Jacob Sabine, a prominent Victorian naturalist and wizard. By the end of the nineteenth century, garden fairies had gone from being as common as dragonflies to near extinction, only to be saved by Sclalter’s Intervention, the Parliamentary Bill passed in 1902 which now protected them.

I’d fine-combed the legal stuff, hoping for something to nail the gnome with.

Unfortunately, the gnome was an accredited conservationist and therefore an authorised dealer. He was allowed to trade as a way to independently fund his fairy preservation work. Once licensed, the fairy would be worth around a grand. Given its rarity for this time of year, the gnome could probably charge three, maybe five times that. Add in that the Carnival Fantastique was in town, and ten times probably wasn’t beyond the realms of the gnome’s greedy calculations. Which was a hell of a monetary incentive to find a way to fast-track nature. The only thing stopping him coining it in was me.

Anyone would think he’d be more politic about things. But that’s gnomes for you.

‘It’s very early in the year for the fairies to be . . . active,’ I said, opting for euphemistic vagueness.

The gnome hit me with another denture-filled leer. ‘But you’ve examined the body haven’t you, Ms Taylor? So you can confirm that his death was part of normal mating and entirely unassisted.’

It was— if you ignored the fact that the male fairy’s near decapitation had been assisted by the female fairy’s neck-frill stiffening during fertilisation. Black widows have nothing on garden fairies.

‘I’ll agree it looks like it,’ I said. ‘But that doesn’t stop it being much earlier.’

‘I think it’s a side-effect of global warming.’ The gnome’s eyes behind his glasses watered, as he gave me his version of an innocent look.

Global warming, my arse. ‘I see.’

Of course, there was always the other, illegally assisted alternative. That somewhere, the gnome had a hothouse dialled up to tropical, and had used it to accelerate the fairy’s life cycle, then trapped him in an airtight box with a rubber frog and a handful of foxglove flowers a.k.a. fairy catnip. As soon as the excited, albeit confused, fairy lost consciousness, the gnome had slit the fairy’s throat and left him to dry out with a sachet of silicate crystals. That was the modern way: the Victorians used to use live frogs and rack the comatose fairies in small oak-lined smoking bins.

Trouble was, as the Victorians had discovered, garden fairies are almost impossible to breed in captivity. They need natural light. Which means glass. And they zip. Zipping into glass at the fairy equivalent of fifty miles an hour is like bugs hitting a car window. They splat.

The only time captive breeding had succeeded on any scale was when the Victorians had relocated Crystal Palace to Sydenham Park. An accident had placed it right on top of the local fairy hatching ground. So if the gnome did have a hothouse, it would have to be at least the size of a football field. Something that huge was hard to hide, even with magic. But my gut said the gnome was up to something. And I was determined to prove it. Only every time I’d moved out of his ‘office’ during my last inspection, he’d stuck to me like some of his nasty lichen, so now I was back, with my invisible-to¬the-gnome co-worker in tow.

I unpacked my kit – measuring callipers, scalpels, pestle and mortar, ultra-violet light, magnifying glass and various potions and test spells I needed to complete the extensive tests prior to granting the licences – carefully lining up the items on the marble-top table under the gnome’s eager, creepy gaze.

Ugh. Last thing I wanted was him rubbernecking my every move for the next couple of hours.

‘This is going to take some time,’ I said firmly as I placed the last, most important item on the table: a packet containing the manmade crystals I’d superglue to each fairy’s head (the least valuable part), each crystal holding the actual Licence spell. The crystals were clear just now, but would glow viridian green once activated. ‘And I prefer to work undisturbed, Mr Lampy. I find there’s less chance of contamination or error that way.’ I paused, baring my teeth in a wide smile; he might not be a goblin, but he’d recognise the threat. ‘I’d hate to have to resample anything because I was distracted.’ In other words:
leave me alone or I’ll chop large expensive chunks off your stock.

The gnome got the message. ‘Of course, Ms Taylor. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.’

I needed him like a vamp needed a suntan! He scuttled away and I settled down to work until my co-worker reappeared. Hopefully with something incriminating that would spell bad news for the nasty gnome.