My footsteps echoed ominously as I entered the council chamber, Ethan following reluctantly behind me. We passed McGus, who stood leaning against the wall beside the door, face grim.
The council chamber was a circular room with four raised desks around the edges, each placed in the perfect spot to make me feel like a lab rat under observation. Grandpa Teddy was already back behind his desk on the far left. Victoria Verde, representative of the Greens, sat to the right of him, a sharp and scrawny klaon with her green hair tied in a bun so tight I wondered if she could even blink. She glared down at me with pursed lips, like a librarian about to snap at me for using a slice of bacon as a bookmark.
Next was Patricia Nolan, the Purple representative. Sitting straight backed with her hands clasped in front of her, she was the only one who didn’t look upset at being woken up to do their job. I searched those violet eyes for any sign of compassion. If I could at least convince her, she would—
“Now that our guest of honor has arrived,” said another voiced, dripping with contempt, “can we finally get started?”
I turned to see the klaon on the far right. Ichabod Hench, representative for the Reds, sat with his feet propped up on his desk. I groaned softly. Would it have been too much to ask that he be home sick today? A harmless case of violent, uncontrollable diarrhea would have done us both so much good.
“Henrietta Rider, it is two thirty in the morning,” he sneered at me. “Whatever you’ve screwed up this time, couldn’t you have waited until a more decent hour to tell us?”
I swallowed hard, trying to ignore the way my intestines were suddenly determined to double knot themselves, and spoke.
“The girl has never called on us this early before,” Victoria snapped, giving Ichabod the stink eye. “Whatever has happened, she must believe it is of the utmost importance.”
I fought to keep my lip from curling. Victoria was a two headed snake, hissing and biting at the same time. Sure enough, as soon as she was done scolding Ichabod, she turned her daggerlike eyes on me.
“Well?” she demanded. “Don’t waste our time. Tell us why we’re here!”
I clasped my hands behind my back in an effort to keep them from grabbing Splatsy — a nervous habit that had been violently misinterpreted more than once — and took a deep breath. I could do this. No matter how judgmental their eyes were, no matter how hard my knees were knocking together, I could do this. I was the Hunter, after all. I did not get scared by a bunch of old,
“Did you forget how to talk?” Ichabod barked.
“No, sir!” I squeaked, and then immediately blushed blue. Clearing my throat, I said, “Less than an hour ago tonight, there was a maiam attack at the house of Ethan Griggs, who—”
“Ah, yes, the human,” Ichabod turned to Ethan, who shrank back. “I’m very curious to know why he is here.”
“Ichabod,” Theodore spoke up softly, “p- perhaps she would tell you if you, ah, stopped interrupting her?”
The thick armed, potbellied Red glared at him, and Grandpa Teddy shrank back, falling silent.
“I brought Ethan here for a reason,” I went on. “He’s, well…I think he needs our help.”
“We don’t interfere in the affairs of humans, Henry,” Patricia spoke up for the first time.
“Ah, er, beyond rescuing them from maiams, of course,” Theodore put in.
Patricia nodded. “Even so, we have our own people with their own problems to worry about. Our plates are full, Henry. We can’t devote any time or resources into helping humans.”
My stomach did a somersault when I saw the others nodding in a rare moment of unanimous agreement. Things rarely went smoothly when dealing with the council, but this was going especially bad. Waking them up and dragging them to work so early must have put them all in a particularly foul mood.
It was time to play my trump card.
“Ethan,” I braced myself, “say hello to the council.”
Looking like a rabbit cornered by four hungry wolves, Ethan swallowed hard and said, “Um, hi?”
His power rippled from him in a rainbow colored shockwave. Ichabod and Victoria sprang to their feet at the same time, voices echoing each other as they cried out in shock. Poor Grandpa Teddy fell backwards out of his chair. Only Patricia remained sitting, though the way her eyes widened betrayed her shock.
Check and mate, I thought with a smirk.
“Incredible!” Victoria gasped.
“We could feed the entire city with that!” Ichabod said. “Boy, what is the meaning of this?”
Ethan, now looking more freaked out than ever, just shrugged.
“He was like that when I found him,” I interjected. “I brought him here because as long as all that laughter is in him, he’s going to be a target for every maiam in the country.”
“We need to think of a way to divide it up,” Patricia said. “Make sure every klaon in Mauldibamm receives an equal amount. Perhaps we should even wait for those who live outside the city to make the trip here so that we—”
“To hell with that!” Ichabod shouted, pounding his fist on the table. “First come, first serve! We take him outside, make him laugh, and—”
“And your Reds,” Victoria hissed venomously, “will take it all before anyone else gets a chance.”
Ichabod turned to her indignantly. “What are you saying?”
“Only that you always find a way to make sure that your kind benefits most from anything we do!”
“Name one time!”
“People!” Patricia’s voice cut sharply through the argument. She looked at the squabbling representatives like a disapproving nanny. “This bickering is unbecoming of the Council of Shnoob. May we please all act our age?”
I smiled a little, but didn’t say anything. Good old Patricia. Since Grandpa Teddy was so timid, she was forced to be the voice of reason here in the Grand Lark. That, I’d often thought, must have been an even harder job than representing her fellow Purples.
Ichabod’s face turned as red as his hair, but he did as he was told and sat back down. Looking down at Ethan contemplatively, he seemed to be thinking — something he probably hadn’t done in years. The way his eyes gleamed made Ethan squirm. The other representatives, busy discussing things amongst themselves, didn’t notice as the Red leaned forward, opened his mouth, and…
Oh, deep fried Twinkies, I thought.
“Boy!” he barked. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Ethan stared blankly back at him.
“Because I ate all the others!”
I tensed, breath hissing through my teeth, as Ichabod roared with laughter so hard he nearly fell out of his seat. Clenching sweaty palms, I lowered my eyes to Ethan, praying he wouldn’t laugh himself to death. With that much laughter, and a Red’s full power focused on him, there was no telling what would…
Ethan hadn’t even cracked a smile.
Ichabod’s laughter trailed off, and he glared down at Ethan in disbelief. “Why aren’t you laughing?”
“Because it wasn’t funny,” Ethan answered with a shrug.
My mouth fell open. Someone could have brained me with Splatsy right then and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
“What,” Ichabod growled, “did you just say?”
“I said it wasn’t funny,” Ethan told him again. “The joke didn’t make any sense, the punchline came out of nowhere, and…it just wasn’t funny!”
I took a step back. This shouldn’t have been possible. My people have fed on human laughter for as long as humans have been around, and we’ve gotten good at it. Very good. Klaons…well, most klaons…have the ability to sense what people think is funny. The stronger you are, the clearer the picture is for you. Reds like Ichabod were at the top of the emotional food chain, while Blues like me scraped the bottom of the barrel for what little we could get. The fact that Ethan could look Ichabod straight in the eye and tell him that he wasn’t funny…
What the jelly filled crab legs are you? I thought in astonishment.
“Young man,” Patricia finally spoke up, “how long has it been since you’ve laughed?”
Ethan shrugged again. “I dunno. Maybe…eight months?”
“Impossible!” Victoria sneered.
“I don’t think I can anymore. Not since…” Ethan hesitated, then looked away. “Every time I try, it just…I dunno, it dies before it can come out of my mouth.”
“I see.” Patricia folded her hands, dark purple eyes deep in thought. “It would appear that something has happened to Ethan to lock all of his joy inside him.”
“Get out of here with that psychology crap,” Ichabod snapped. “You can’t lock your feelings like they’re in some kind of safe!”
“The evidence is right in front of us,” Patricia insisted, motioning toward Ethan. “Joy is what gives laughter the power we feed on. He clearly has that inside of him, but is unable to release it. Like something is holding it inside him.”
Did the man in the clown mask do this? I wondered. No, he couldn’t have. I’d felt Ethan’s power while fighting the maiam, long before the masked man had shown up. But then how in the chunky peanut butter had this happened?
Ichabod waved his hand dismissively. “Fine, whatever. How do we get it out of him?”
“I don’t see that we can,” Grandpa Teddy spoke up. “Not without surgically removing it.”
Ethan spun around. “WHAT?”
“He’s kidding,” I said.
However, Ichabod stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Would that work?”
“Of course not, you imbecile!” Victoria snapped.
The council began to argue again, and within seconds the meeting had devolved into another shouting contest.
“I thought you said they were going to help me,” Ethan whispered accusingly.
I grimaced. “They mean well. Most of them. Usually.”
“We keep him here in Mauldibamm, then,” decided Victoria. “Until he learns how to laugh again!”
“He’s broken none of our laws,” Theodore argued. “We have no right to imprison him.”
“It’s not like we’d be throwing him in jail,” said Ichabod. “We’d give him a comfortable room, feed him well, all that crap.”
“Not to mention,” Patricia said, “that maiams will come after him if we let them.”
My stomach began to sink. If Patricia and Ichabod agreed on something, that meant it was going to happen. They were going to take Ethan away, lock him in a room somewhere until he learned how to laugh again. If he ever learned. The look of resignation on Ethan’s face told me he wasn’t any more excited about this than I was.
“Exactly,” Ichabod agreed. “It’s for his own protection!”
“We’ll need to severely limit what he can watch on television,” Victoria said, looking down her nose at him. “And no video games. Ghastly things. That is why he can’t laugh, I would wager.”
Anger began to build up inside me. They were talking about him like he was some kind of animal!
“Let him outside twice a day, take him for walks,” said Ichabod, as if to confirm my thoughts.
“And daily tests. Hourly, if we can manage it,” added Patricia. “Finding out exactly what’s wrong could help speed up his recovery.”
I clenched my fists, shaking with rage.
“No cell phone. No internet.”
“What do humans even eat, anyway?”
“I’ve heard of a way to judge psychological health through anal pro—”
“I’LL TAKE HIM!”
The council chamber fell silent, and every eye in the room fell on me. I froze. Had…Had I said that?
“What was that, Henry?” Grandpa Teddy asked.
“I- I just…well…” I stammered. Panic gripped my heart. “I mean, I…”
“If you have something to say, girl, then spit it out!” Victoria snapped.
I swallowed hard. What the green bean casserole was I doing? This hadn’t been part of the plan! Hopefully it wasn’t too late to back out and…I locked eyes with Ethan. So much fear, so much confusion. I couldn’t back out, I realized. Not when that meant throwing him to the wolves.
“I’ll take care of him,” I said. “Until he learns to laugh again, he can stay with me. That way you don’t have to lock him up, and I’ll be near him all the time to protect him from maiams.”
Ichabod sneered. “I wasn’t aware you were able to override the council’s decisions, Henrietta.”
My mouth curled in a snarl. “You weren’t? Because I thought it was common knowledge that the Hunter has the ultimate say on any decisions that involve maiams!”
Stunned silence filled the courtroom.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, Henry?” Grandpa Teddy finally asked. “That’s a big responsibility, and—”
“Oh, let the girl do what she wants!” Ichabod spat in disgust. “If she succeeds, then she saves us all a lot of work. But if she fails…”
He eyed me menacingly.
“…then I think I speak for the entire council when I say it will be your last failure!”
I swallowed and forced myself to nod. “Fine.”
“Are there any objections to Henry Rider becoming the guardian of Ethan Griggs?” Patricia asked.
Ethan raised a hand. “Do I get a say—”
“Then it is settled.”
Theodore leaned forward, anxiety etched onto his wrinkled face. “Henry, I hope I don’t have to tell you how important it is that you keep that young man safe. If a maiam were to consume that much laughter, it would be…unspeakable. I don’t know if even Master McGus would be able to kill such a monstrosity!”
I stood up straight. “Don’t worry, Grandpa Teddy. I can do it.”
“Well, since that’s done with,” Ichabod said, standing, “let’s adjourn this meeting. I want to go back to bed!”
I jump a little, startled. “Wait, adjourn? I’m not done yet!”
“Oh, yes you are!” Victoria snapped. “You’ve given us enough to worry about for one night, girl!”
“But there’s a psychopath running around out there! His laughter is poisonous, and…” My voice trailed off when I realized none of them were listening. The council members stood, muttering to themselves as if they couldn’t even hear me. I could only watch as they filed out of the chamber, leaving me alone with Ethan and McGus.
Ethan…the poor guy almost looked like he would have preferred being locked up by the council. What was the difference, he was probably wondering? Ripped away from his home and family, sucked into a world of magic clowns and monsters, and now he was going to live with one? I didn’t blame him one bit.
“You did good.”
I looked over at McGus, and was surprised to see him nodding in approval.
“Could have fooled me,” I said tiredly.
“You took control of the situation and made them give you what you wanted,” he said, then looked at Ethan. “The boy’ll be better off with you than with those idiots.”
Ethan slumped, looking even more exhausted than I felt. “So I really don’t get a say in any of this?”
McGus shrugged. “Sure you do. You can walk away now, try to take care of yourself, and get killed by the first maiam that smells your laughter.”
I frowned, leaning against Grandpa Teddy’s desk. What had I just gotten myself into? I’d brought Ethan here to make the council see that good things could happen with me as the Hunter. They were supposed to walk out of here respecting me. Instead, I’d hacked them off even worse than ever — and gotten stuck with babysitting duty on top of it.
I looked up when McGus put his hand on my shoulder. “Hey,” he said softly, “I’m proud of you.”
I met his eyes for a second, but then looked away. “You don’t act like it.”
“Yeah, I know.” He sighed and scratched the back of his head. “I’m not good at that. Never have been. But you’ll do fine protecting the kid. I know you will.”
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded. “Now go home, get some sleep…”
He grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me toward the door.
“And bring me back my Escher Cube! I want it first thing in the morning!”
Ethan and I exchanged a long look, but didn’t speak. What was there to say? I motioned for him to follow me, and he did, and together we stepped out onto the hilltop overlooking Mauldibamm. Without the Cube, we’d need to walk all the way through the city a second time and take an IW home.
Sighing, I pulled out my phone.
“Henry?” the familiar voice came from the other end. “What are you doing out so late?”
“Hi, Mom!” I said, trying to sound chipper. “Just some crap with the council. I’m on my way home.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, uh huh, super-duper. Just, um…” I hesitated, shooting one last glance at Ethan. “Get Con’s room ready, okay? We’re going to have company.”