The new arrival in the Diner only stirs local interest. A few disgruntled individuals of various shapes, sizes, colors, and textures shuffle aside from the door. One or two blithely ignore the existence of the door. The rest of the crowd remains focused on the round table at the center. One of the beings there says, acidly, "Give me a new set of knucklebones. I'm *sure* he's hexed *these*. That's three from the Hive for me, and only one from the town."
Ruth is dark earthen hues against these bright people, like all of her sharp color was caught in the shining of her eyes. She murmurs something, a quiet, whickered apology, then glances about, her attention resting eventually on the round table. She puffs out a quick breath. Well.
"You, there, in the cherry blossoms," says a tall, slender androgyne with a waterfall of white hair and snowflake eyes, "fetch a cup for your lady. She rolls next." The being so addressed, a scantily-clad little thing with glossy grackle wings, flutters into a corner, rummages in a pile of leaves, and returns with a jewel-encrusted goblet full of something pungently floral. A sleek woman with the curves of a purple beech receives it graciously. "Thank you," she says, addressing her subject as much as the chilly being who called for her cup. "Which is it then? Another from the town?"
Ruth thanks herself, for the moment, for the thought that urged her to leave her pack outside. And with few places left to rest, if any, she simply crosses her arms about her middle and stands where she is. A brow turns up stays there as the grackle-winged woman fetches the drink.
Something buzzes around Ruth's head. After a moment, it settles on her thigh. Either it's the most massive horsefly in existence, or it's a very small human child with the shiny wings of a horsefly, feathery antennae like a moth, and large, iridescent, compound eyes that reflect everything a thousand times. "Youuuu smell goooood," it says in a high, piping child's voice.
The horse-woman shifts, leaning ever slightly forward as she looks down at the creature clinging to her. Beneath her poncho, an arm's muscle stirs, twinges. "Thank you," Ruth murmurs, her voice a low, rusty alto. "But I only /smell/ good." Her eyes are wider, the whites showing clear around darker brown.
It laughs, showing a mouthful of needle-like teeth and shrilling harshly. "*I* bet you have *sweeeeet* blood."
"I've tasted it," Ruth says, her voice held too level to be truly amiable. "It's too sharp to be sweet." Soft, she could be talking to a child.
Troop steps into the diner.
Troop has arrived.
About a dozen people, none of them taller than eighteen inches high. They are stocky, sturdy-looking people with brown hair and brown skin and clever-looking hands, and are all dressed in green trousers, green jackets, and bright red boots. Gender is difficult to determine, for they are all squarely-shaped, with hair down to the ground (some worn in ponytails and braids) and deeply-wrinkled faces despite the lack of gray in the hair. Their spokesperson carries a long slender wand, quite straight and with gray bark on it.
The troop of very short people dressed in green enters whooping and turning somersaults.
The horsefly-thing shrills a giggle again, but is distracted by the arrival of the excited green-clad folk. Meanwhile, at the center, someone says, "Bugger a goose. I can't believe I *lost* Bane."
The leader of the green troop elbows hisser way through the crowd and ceremoniously tosses a single sparkling *something* into the large wooden bowl.
The crowd in the diner pauses to breathlessly watch the thing land in the wooden bowl, and then explodes into bone-shaking applause and cheers. A row of the bottles of ginger beer on Sashenka's shelves all pop in sequence, their contents bubbling forth effusively.
There's a stir in one corner, and the Birch Twins, slender, black and white, step forward eagerly to peer into the bowl. "How many?" asks the boy, and the girl finishes, "only *one?* Hah! We're still the best!" They look at one another and laugh their curious whispering laugh, rocking back and forth with their arms around each other. "Seven in one blow! Oh, the Lady will give us *favors!*" Their faces are, if anything, even more beautiful in their mirth than in their former wistfulness.
Ruth is human in seeming, but only that. The thing perched on her has her eye, but not the whole of it. She watches the troop tumble into the diner, the bowl as it's filled, tucks her hands in her pockets and winces as the crowd roars into applause. But, oh, it's very hard not to stare at the twins.
A broad-shouldered woman with short, flaming hair, dressed rustically in a red flannel shirt and jeans, snorts. "Yeah, yeah. We will *never* hear the end of that, will we?" But she throws her head back and lets forth a chilling howl of laughter that seems to echo from every corner of the room. The androgyne leans over and slaps her shoulder irritably. The redhead closes her mouth with a snap and her eyes blaze up with sudden rage. "You have your tricks," she snarls.
The perunka is very, very still, nostrils flared wide, her chin dipped as she holds for the space of the howling laughter to her human form. She looks down at the thing perched on her, doesn't step back as much as lean away from the din. She takes a long, slow breath.
The horsefly-thing makes an vile little sucking noise as it gazes upward, its eyes reflecting a hundred distorted Ruths.
A little striped girl with brown hair and round furry ears leans forward and swats the horsefly-child off of Ruth's knee with a furry paw. "Eeeeewww! You're so /awful/! Go make your unseelie noises someplace else!"
The horsefly tumbles into the crowd and lands with a heavy splat in the middle of a group of leafy green reed-people. They all bend forward ponderously to study it, mouths open in an identical "O" of wonder.
It's too terrible. Ruth smiles, broad, flat teeth bright against her dark skin. Her brows go up, though, as the thing's swatted away and she glances at the round-eared girl. A corner of her mouth quirks up in a lopsided grin.
"So, have we gotten everyone we can from the town?" the beech woman inquires languidly. She brushes fingers over some small figurines that stand on the table before her.
A dark hand reaches up, brushes red and black hair away from a broad brow. Ruth glances, sidelong at the door, then back towards the beech woman. Her eyes don't quite narrow, but the crow's feet at their corners grow sharper. The lopsided smile remains.
A reedy voice from the back says, "The thirteenth is proving difficult. But twelve are enough."
The androgyne stands in a rustle of fabric that seems to be primarily icicles. One pale hand slips into the wooden bowl, the other into a bowl of glass, and each hand draws forth a figure. "For the next round, we have Gerard of the Swords, and Argent of the Silver Arm." All extraneous noise in the room ceases and there is a tense, "oooooo," from the crowd as all eyes turn to the table. The figures are set in the center of the table. The beech woman indicates with a wave of her hand that the Birch Twins should roll next. The androgyne bows stiffly to a short, hunchbacked dwarf who emerges from the crowd to take up the knucklebones.
There's really too much to see within the crowded room, the world outside blurred and quiet compared to the noise and color here within. The perunka cants her head, listening, but her gaze starts to drift out along the crowd-- The reedy people, where the horsefly child fell, the birch twins, the beech woman-- then the redhead in flannel, the one who howled. Scents and sounds, bright colors, all blurred together. Ruth starts to smile again, like she wasn't also hearing what was being said, but there's a sharp edge to that smile.
Green woman steps into the diner.
Green woman has arrived.
The Birch Twins move up to the table and the pale girl takes up the knucklebones, smiling only slightly as she rattles them in her long fingers. She holds them up so that the dark boy can breathe on them before she casts them on the table. At the same moment, the dwarf, pushing aside the long crabgrass and a dandelion or two that is apparently growing from the hump on his back, throws down his bones. After a moment, the twins and the dwarf both say, "Ten."
A roar goes up from the room. A chant rises from a group of disreputable-looking pixie-types: "Double jeopardy! Double jeopardy! Pull another pair!"
The green woman sways forward, the willow leaves in her hair whispering. "First, let me offer my contribution," she says, and tosses a small, glittering object through the air to land squarely into the wooden bowl. A patter of applause and approval rustles through the room.
Ruth's hair is a varihued about about her broad face, her chin dipped and arms crossed as she watches the game. Her smile's faded, left for a certain equine intent. The dice, the figurines, the names set on them. For all she moves, she could have grown in that spot, though the tension in her limbs belies that.
The androgyne bows gravely to the green woman and reaches into the wooden and glass bowls again, drawing forth another pair of figurines. "Ruth Naomi Ayllon and... Jan Ezust!" The figures are set next to their counterparts on the table.
Ruth quirks a corner of her mouth up. One name at least, is familiar as her own. Her own, in fact. She narrows her eyes, too far away perhaps to discern a face on the figurine.
The dark boy smiles ferally, and whispers something in his twin's ear. The white-haired girl nods, and shakes the knucklebones in both her hands. After a moment, she tosses them high in the air, and they rattle onto the table in a sudden space of perfect silence. Both the twins look down, and speak in unison: "Five points."
The dwarf takes up his set of knucklebones and rattles them in his horny hand. After a moment, he casts them down onto the table as if he were trying to break them. They bounce, are caught at the edge of the table by some unseen force, and bounce back to the center. He cranes his neck and squints nearsightedly. After a long moment, he snarls, "Three." A hiss rises from a few scattered places, quickly silenced by a sharp glance from the beech woman.
The birch twins smile delightedly and the boy cannot restrain a joyful shiver, like a slender tree in a breeze. "We will take Argent," says the girl, "and.." the boy finishes for her "Ruth." They both glance quickly around the room, their eyes crinkled slightly with their secret and shadowy smile.
For a moment Ruth's breath catches on something, the moment, her expectation, a thought unvoiced. The games these people must play. She doesn't straighten when her name is spoken-- She's standing, there's not far to go-- but she does draw her eyes up from the table, looks towards the twins.
The birch twins and the dwarf bow formally to each other, and drift away from the table. On the twins' side, a woman dressed in yellow, brown, and black, with humming silver wings at her back and black, black eyes beneath slender antennae steps up. On the dwarf's side, a woman in black, bent nearly double under the weight of her seeming years, and with skin and hair as white as snow appears.
The twins fade back into obscurity in the crowd, but not before they have spotted Ruth's gaze, and their smiles deepen.
The hag in black insists silently upon sitting in a chair for her attendance at the table, and evicts a wilting young lily girl without mercy. After settling herself in the chair, she bends to examine her knucklebones minutely, and then takes them up in gnarled, slightly palsied, hands. The androgyne draws another pair of figurines. "This round is for... Kelsey Eisenmann and... Zebulon of the Tower." Several groups applaud with interest. The hag spits to one side, and where it hits the floor, a small explosion rises in a puff of green smoke, scattering a few little rock sprites. Then she casts her roll, leans forward, leans back, crosses her arms, and says, smugly, to the bee-woman, "Eight."
There's only one smile for Ruth, but she meets the twins with it as they fade into the crowd. It's probably for the best that her skin's dark, that there's no real way for her to pale. Just what sides are being chosen here?
The bee-woman shakes out the yellow silk and brown fur of her high-waisted gown, and sits down on a stool which simply appears for her, carried into place by a dozen tiny yellow and black sprites. She picks up the knucklebones without looking at them, tosses them carelessly down, and glances at them, merely. "Nine," she says in her drowsy, humming voice.
Leaning back a little and fanning herself with her wings, the bee-queen adds gently, "We will take Zebulon the blood mage. He will be interesting."
"Huh," the hag says, and spits again, this time scattering the reed people and knocking the unfortunate horsefly out of the air. It emits a little shriek as it spirals into a wall, trailing purple smoke. She gets up from the table, eyes the figurine set in her side's part of the table, and says, "Huh," again before retiring. The bee woman rises gracefully and drifts, humming slightly, back to where she came, her stool and sprites scampering after.
A tall man with a waterfall of black hair takes the bee-queen's place. He is dressed all in white fur, with a crown of holly leaves on his head; his face is as pale as mist except for his deep black eyes and red lips. At the crone's place, a young girl is brought forward. Her hair is palely green, as is her short shift, and there are purple and yellow crocuses, bulbs and all, apparently growing in her hair.
Ruth glances away from the table as the horsefly-child spirals away into a wall, turns a brow up. She makes a low sound in the back of her throat, a faint whickr, but she's already looking back at the table, the figurines arrayed there.
The chilly, beautiful hands reach into the bowls again. "And this time... Layla Block and Archie Axe-Man." The crocus girl rolls the knucklebones inher hands eagerly and casts them. "Two!" she says, hermouth curling downwards at the corners.
A roar goes up in the room again. "Twice in one play! Twice!" shrieks a particularly piercing voice, and Double Jeopardy! Again! Double Jeopardy! Pull again!" chants a number of voices, including a high squeaky one coming from a shelf against the wall.
"Last two!" announces the icicle-clad MC. "Both townsfolk. Jack Archer and Rowan Congreve!" Another little "ooooo" runs round the room as the figures are set. The crocus-girl claps her hands happily and casts her bones again. "Seven!" she nearly crows, showing small, shapely, pointed teeth.
The icy man opposite her rolls his knucklebones deliberately upon the table and examines them leisurely. "Nine," he says, satisfaction frosting his voice. "We will take..." he pauses, thinking. "Rowan and Archie."
Perhaps she's used to the din by now, perhaps she's gone mad from it, for few sane creatures would stay so long in a room with such wonderful neighbors. Ruth's smile has faded, her mouth a firm line on a face no longer purely human, the hands tucked in her pockets oddly turned, knuckles meeting where they should not. One of those things seen from the corner of an eye that isn't there when seen in full. She stirs, takes half a step back when the last names are called.
The crocus girl pouts prettily. Then she snatches up the other two counters and says, "Pooh! *I* wanted all *Hive.*" She flounces away from the table. The androgynous icicle-dressed person ceremoniously turns the bowls over to show they are empty, and a sigh of satisfaction and a rustle of whispers runs around the room.
The troop of small green people, who have been cheering and pulling little practical jokes and calling remarks all this time, suddenly become very grave and file out of the diner carefully, one by one.
The rest of the crowd begins to pick itself up and file out the door, windows, and through minute cracks in the walls. Somehow the beautiful bones-rollers just fade away amidst the minor chaos. At last, only a few drifts of dried brown leaves and scattered blossoms tumble across the floor, and the hag is the last one left in the room with Ruth. With a sigh and a gap-toothed expression on her wrinkled face that one might almost think was a smile, she creaks to her feet and hobbles across the floor toward the door. She peers up at Ruth with her snapping black gaze. Then she says, "Huh," spits off to the side, and vanishes amidst a rather large explosion and foul odor.
Ruth draws back a step, then three, covering her nose with hands, quickly-lengthening fingers fusing, hooves. She stumbles, almost, but that's not the right word as she twists and blurs. Her face lengthens as her eyes grow large and liquid-brown, drift to either side of her head. For a moment the horse stands poised, reared up on her hind legs, her ears brushing the ceiling, then with a loud thump her hooves drop down, meet the floor. She whinnies, loud, shakes her head. Gah!