I snap back. One of the Jacks’ hands is still aloft. SB beams down, like a mother spider choosing which of its offspring to eat next. She nods to her left, at someone else I can’t see because of Struwwelpeter’s massive freaking mess of hair.
‘Saps,’ says Baby, his voice a rumble at the back of his throat. ‘If Gretel’s gone over to the Wickeds, it’ll be a suicide mission. No happy ever afters for those clowns.’
I elbow him to be quiet. I must have hit a nerve: he slaps down on my leg with one of his gigantic paws, the claws drilling five neat holes into my thigh like synchronised woodworm.
‘Grimm’s teeth!’ My curse is out before I can nail my jaw shut.
The room falls silent.
SB spins a glare in my direction. Baby shrinks in his seat, trying to look all cuddly. Struwwelpeter turns round, causing everyone sitting within ten feet of him to duck.
‘Mr Collodi.’ Her voice is as warm as a bathtub full of ice cubes. ‘How noble of you to volunteer.’
I feel the whorl of a knot in my gut. I’m not going to be able to sweet talk my way out of this one.
‘Excellent.’ SB claps her hands. The Secrets snap to attention, like clockwork soldiers. ‘Three brave souls, willing to risk everything to stop Gretel’s secrets falling into the wrong hands. They are an inspiration to us all.’
I glare at Baby. He grins back at me, his big Baby eyes fooling nobody.
‘If our trio of heroes could stay behind for a briefing,’ says SB, staring at herself in a gilded mirror, ‘the rest of you can return to your business.’
The leads file out, a procession of tales half-told. I watch Baby shrug and prowl off. I see he’s attached himself to Little Red. Can’t say I blame him — she’s not quite so little any more. I think about throwing some comment after him, about how the last animal she got all cozy with ended up split like a pumpkin, but I let it go.
Just the three of us are left. I get up, head towards the platform. I’m curious to see who I’ve been teamed up with. Which pair of idiots actually volunteered for this.
I should have known. The Jack is still sitting in the front row, staring ahead with a vacant expression, his hand up at his bandaged crown. He’s not been the same since Jill ran off with one of the Duke of York’s men. Apparently they’re very happy together. Got a thing about hillwalking.
The sight of my other teammate is a bit more encouraging. In every way.
Goldie’s an absolute peach. Like Little Red, she might not be a kid any more, but she certainly is a babe. Her blonde hair tumbles down onto smooth pale shoulders, her blue eyes sparkling with a tiny hint of magic, her slinky red dress fitting her just right.
Baby’s going to be so jealous.