My plan was to sneak into that restaurant, find Julia and warn her of Scyther’s schemes, and then hopefully not get caught by any of the yaojing. I didn’t know how they killed people who knew about their world, but I definitely didn’t want to find out.
The Grill House was its own building, painted a bold maroon on the outside and an off-white for the window frames. The restaurant’s name was written on a huge sign, standing tall and proud right above the roof. A picture of a round barbeque grill stood in for the “G” in Grill.
I’d heard it was one of the more expensive restaurants downtown, and the food was supposedly fabulous. Customers chose from a variety of meats—from quail to ostrich to beef—and the chefs grilled their selection, using the restaurant’s famous homemade barbeque sauce. It was all-you-can-eat, and their sweet potato fries were also rumored to be the best in the city. I had never tried it, but now that I knew the owner was Scyther, I knew I never would.
The front entrance had a huge sign that said “Closed for Banquet.” I heard the sound of a voice amplified by a microphone booming through the front doors. It was quickly followed by loud, raucous laughter. It seemed that the yaojing were having a great time in there. I hoped they would be so occupied with the amusing act they were watching that I could simply slip unnoticed through the back entrance.
Piles of garbage and enthusiastic flies filled the back alleyway. Holding my breath, I quickly walked past and found the entrance to the kitchen.
I peeped inside and saw about ten punk rockers scurrying about the kitchen, their bright, neon pink hair standing out against the kitchen lights. Then it occurred to me that these punk rockers were the cooks, as they were working over the fire, pan handle in one hand. It figured that the cooks would be yaojing too. After all, if humans were in the kitchen, they would suspect that something was up if the entire restaurant was filled with yaojing. It would look like some kind of cult had gathered for the night.
Thankfully, they were so busy preparing food that they didn’t notice as I crept on by, not even daring to breathe until I had passed to the other side.
Out in the hallway were the restrooms and another door leading out to the dining hall. I edged around the corner and almost gasped. From outside, the restaurant was big, but not big enough to hold nearly a thousand people.
But there they were, a thousand yaojing, their backs facing me as they focused on the act on the stage before them.
There were even balconies above the main floor to seat more yaojing, and a few of them had special front seats that were designed like thrones. The Elite, I surmised at once. They were dressed differently from the other yaojing. Instead of taking on the punk look, they wore the elegant costumes of models and movie stars, the men in suits, and the women in sparkling dresses.
The entire setting looked like some ancient theater, with the lights dimmed low and a stage in front, where a troupe of performers were acting out some dance and comedy routine.
A potted fern, a little taller than five inches, lay to my right. It was the perfect hiding spot. I tip-toed sideways behind a table of pink-haired yaojing and carefully placed myself directly behind the fern, just as the audience broke into applause.
My eyes started to scan the crowd for long, white-blonde hair, but there were so many ladies who fit that description, probably all of them white foxes. My heart filled with despair. It would be nearly impossible to locate Julia.
But then, my attention turned towards the stage as Scyther stepped forward to announce something.
“My good friends, I hope you’ve all enjoyed the show so far,” he said, and the audience burst into applause and cat calls once again. When the noise had died down, Scyther continued.
“Before we start our feast, there is just one more item on our program. I’d like to call to the stage, a familiar face…Lady Julia!”
All eyes turned to a table in front, where Julia shook her head bashfully. It seemed she didn’t want to go up there.
But Scyther prodded. “I know you weren’t given any notice, but it’s been so long since any of us have seen you. We all just want a few words from you, to satisfy our curiosity on what you’ve been doing these past two decades.”
That evil schemer! He knew very well what Julia had been doing and probably just wanted to see her struggle with her words.
Julia had no choice, as the audience went wild and practically pushed her on stage. But I realized this could be an advantage for me. Now I had located her, and her front was facing me, whereas the other yaojing still had all their backs to me. I waited for her to begin her speech before coming out of my hiding place. It was a risk, but I couldn’t think of a better plan.
“Hello friends,” Julia said awkwardly. “It’s been a long time, and I am honored that all of you are concerned about my wellbeing.”
I chose that moment to step out from the fern to wave my arms wildly. Although I was a great distance from the stage, white foxes were known for their acute vision, and a brief stutter in Julia’s speech told me that she’d seen me. She recovered quickly before anyone could notice that her eyes had suddenly focused on the back of the room.
“My life these past two decades has been filled with travels,” she said, as I gestured wildly. I was trying to do some form of charades to tell her that Khit was just a few blocks away, but I knew I was failing miserably.
I pointed to Scyther, then made a cutting motion over my throat, and then pointed back at her. It wasn’t exactly an accurate portrayal, but I hoped it would be enough to tell her that Scyther was up to no good.
I slid back behind the fern and waited to see what Julia would do next. She was basically giving a summary of all the places in the world where she had traveled, and which countries had been the most enjoyable for her. She talked about everything from climate to fashion, and I could see that the audience was growing bored. After an adequate amount of time had passed, Julia gave a conclusion.
“Well, I could prattle on and on about the places I’ve visited, but I know we’re all hungry. So let the feast begin!”
As the crowd applauded, Julia handed the microphone back to Scyther. Then as Scyther announced the first course, servers piled out of the kitchen, bringing plates to each table. As they began to eat, I kept my eyes on Julia. She excused herself from her table, probably telling those yaojing that she wanted to talk to a friend at another table, and headed towards me. Without stopping in front of my fern, she whispered for me to follow her to the restroom, and I complied.
Khit had once told me that yaojing didn’t usually need to use the restroom in their human forms, but Julia checked to make sure all the stall were empty, just as an extra precaution.
Then she turned to face me, with a disapproving frown. “It’s a good thing that food neutralizes the smell of human flesh, or you would have been discovered right away. But I take it you have good reason for endangering yourself this way.”
“You need to get away from here,” I told her. “Khit’s probably figured out that I’m here by now, and he might be right outside this restaurant. And Scyther has called your husband to come here too. He wants to make sure you don’t make it through your final task.”
Her voice was low and dangerous. “So that’s his plan. I should have known he’d still try something tonight. And here I thought I’d give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“What are we going to do?”
“First, we’ve got to get you out of here and back to Khit, and then I’m going to leave quietly. I’ll distract the cooks, so you can sneak out the back. Let me peek out the door just to make sure nobody’s coming, and then you can come out.”
I followed her out the restroom, and we crept through the hallway. Servers were going in and out of the kitchen with dishes of food, making it impossible for me to sneak back out unnoticed. I realized I had been incredibly lucky when I had snuck through the first time. The servers had probably all been busy with the guests and had not gone back to the kitchen.
“I have a plan,” Julia whispered. “Back to the restroom.”
In the restroom, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a golden leaf. Then she closed her eyes, focusing her entire concentration on the leaf.
With wide eyes, I heard Julia recite two words. “Aurum lamina.”
The leaf stirred a bit, and then right before my eyes, it turned into the black and white uniform that the servers wore.
“Put that on.”
Although I was still slightly disoriented at the sight of real magic, I still had enough wits about me to follow her command. Slipping on the black skirt and white blouse, I contemplated what I had just seen. Khit had told me that foxes could transform leaves into any object that they desired, and even though I had been fascinated, everything I had heard about the yaojing had still been simply true fairy tales in my head. I had yet to witness these fairy tales come to life, to become part of my reality. But now, tonight, the truth behind the world of the yaojing really hit me like a sudden adrenaline rush.
The only yaojing I had met so far, minus Scyther and Keane, were Khit and Julia. They were my friends, and I’d never thought of them as creatures or killers, so I hadn’t really thought much about how dangerous the other yaojing could be.
But watching Julia perform magic now, I realized that the yaojing sitting out there had powers like her. And I refused to say all, but most yaojing, did not use their strength and power for good; they were like Scyther, using their abilities to harm. Thinking about how protective Khit and Julia had been over me, trying to prevent me from encountering other yaojing, the full extent of the danger I was in just blasted me straight to the heart. If the yaojing found out that I was here, that I knew about them, I would not get out of this restaurant alive.
I refused to let my fear show. There was still hope, and Julia was doing her best to help me get out of the danger zone.
Finished with changing into the uniform, I looked to Julia again and saw that she had another golden leaf in her hand. This, she changed into a wig, with black hair spiked high and emphasized with neon pink highlights.
I gathered my hair together so that Julia could easily place the wig over my head. Then she started on my makeup, using way too much mascara, eyeliner, and eye shadow. It was making me anxious to look into the mirror.
“You can look now,” Julia said, standing back.
Staring at my new image in the mirror, I was rather shocked at the transformation. Never in my life had I considered the punk look, and this was as close as I would ever get.
“I think you’ll pass as a pig,” she said.
“What?” I was pretty sure Julia wasn’t being insulting, but one could never tell.
She smiled. “The servers and cooks are all pig yaojing. I just meant you’d pass as one of them.” Then she looked at me and frowned. “But you’ll have to act less innocent, and don’t show any fear on your face or our gig is up.”
Immediately, I tried to form a scowl and look bitchy. “How’s that?”
Julia shook her head, trying not to laugh. “Never mind, it doesn’t fit you. Just act natural.”
Then she explained what I was going to do. I would enter the kitchen like a regular server, and follow the other servers’ examples by pretending to go about my business in the kitchen. Then she would come in after me and call all attention of the cooks and the servers. She would tell them that it was Scyther’s birthday, and she wanted to know if the dessert could be special. Then while she was making the announcement, I was to sneak out the door and find Khit, and she would escape before her husband made it to the restaurant.
It seemed a decent plan, but as I made my way to the kitchen, I was so scared that something would go wrong.
But nobody seemed to notice that a human was in their presence. They bustled back and forth, carrying dishes of succulent cuisine from the kitchen to the guests. Seconds after I entered the kitchen, I pretended to take up several plates of food, just as Julia regally burst in, clapping her hands together loudly to gain attention.
Immediately, all eyes drew towards her like bees to their queen. Julia’s charisma factor certainly had not faded a bit in the yaojing world.
A good thing for me, as nobody was paying any attention to the girl who was inching her way out towards the door.
Two more steps, and I would be there. I could see the back alleyway and the sky above it, now tinted with hints of purples, magentas, and oranges, as the sun had for the most part, already hidden itself below the blanket of the horizon. My freedom lay just beyond that door.
I took a giant step across the threshold, and the beautiful sunset suddenly became blocked from my view, as the air suddenly materialized into an angry, but beautiful face with long, black hair, echoed by snow-white streaks.