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As he ran, the Marionette felt more and more certain that he would have to give himself up into the hands of his pursuers. Suddenly he saw a little cottage gleaming white as the snow among the trees of the forest.

“If I have enough breath left with which to reach that little house, I may be saved,” he said to himself.

Not waiting another moment, he darted swiftly through the woods, the Assassins still after him.

After a hard race of almost an hour, tired and out of breath, Pinocchio finally reached the door of the cottage and knocked. No one answered.

He knocked again, harder than before, for behind him he heard the steps and the labored breathing of his persecutors. The same silence followed.

As knocking was of no use, Pinocchio, in despair, began to kick and bang against the door, as if he wanted to break it. At the noise, a window opened and a lovely maiden looked out. She had azure hair and a face white as wax. Her eyes were closed and her hands crossed on her breast. With a voice so weak that it hardly could be heard, she whispered:

“No one lives in this house. Everyone is dead.”

“Won’t you, at least, open the door for me?” cried Pinocchio in a beseeching voice.

“I also am dead.”

“Dead? What are you doing at the window, then?”

“I am waiting for the coffin to take me away.”

After these words, the little girl disappeared and the window closed without a sound.

“Oh, Lovely Maiden with Azure Hair,” cried Pinocchio, “open, I beg of you. Take pity on a poor boy who is being chased by two Assass—”

He did not finish, for two powerful hands grasped him by the neck and the same two horrible voices growled threateningly: “Now we have you!”

The Marionette, seeing death dancing before him, trembled so hard that the joints of his legs rattled and the coins tinkled under his tongue.

“Well,” the Assassins asked, “will you open your mouth now or not? Ah! You do not answer? Very well, this time you shall open it.”

Taking out two long, sharp knives, they struck two heavy blows on the Marionette’s back.

Happily for him, Pinocchio was made of very hard wood and the knives broke into a thousand pieces. The Assassins looked at each other in dismay, holding the handles of the knives in their hands.

“I understand,” said one of them to the other, “there is nothing left to do now but to hang him.”

“To hang him,” repeated the other.

They tied Pinocchio’s hands behind his shoulders and slipped the noose around his neck. Throwing the rope over the high limb of a giant oak tree, they pulled till the poor Marionette hung far up in space.

Satisfied with their work, they sat on the grass waiting for Pinocchio to give his last gasp. But after three hours the Marionette’s eyes were still open, his mouth still shut and his legs kicked harder than ever.

Tired of waiting, the Assassins called to him mockingly: “Good-by till tomorrow. When we return in the morning, we hope you’ll be polite enough to let us find you dead and gone and with your mouth wide open.” With these words they went.

A few minutes went by and then a wild wind started to blow. As it shrieked and moaned, the poor little sufferer was blown to and fro like the hammer of a bell. The rocking made him seasick and the noose, becoming tighter and tighter, choked him. Little by little a film covered his eyes.

Death was creeping nearer and nearer, and the Marionette still hoped for some good soul to come to his rescue, but no one appeared. As he was about to die, he thought of his poor old father, and hardly conscious of what he was saying, murmured to himself:

“Oh, Father, dear Father! If you were only here!”

These were his last words. He closed his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched out his legs, and hung there, as if he were dead.

James woke up on the outskirts of the market. His head throbbed, and when he raised his fingers to the back of it, they came away slippery with blood. More was caked on the side of his face, and one of his molars was loose.

He sat up and groaned as the world swam before his eyes. What the hell happened? He’d been tracking Pine when something had rushed at him. A person. A man wearing a blue-checked shirt.

Pine. No. No. No. I have to find her.

How much time had passed? Judging by the lengthening shadows, he’d been out for nearly an hour. James needed to find her before it got dark. He staggered as he climbed to his feet, his head pulsing violently.

He could only hope they hadn’t caught up to her. And that she’d listened to him for once and gone to the tree like she was supposed to. He’d start there. After that, well—

She’ll be there. Don’t think about it, just go.

It took him less than ten minutes to skirt the market at a full run and find the empty lot he’d directed her to. He was almost afraid to look. What he would do if she wasn’t there?

But she was.

Hanging by a noose from the lowest branch of the tree, her body twisting slowly in the air.

No, no, no.

Her head was bowed, her eyes closed. She’d been badly beaten, large scraps of skin torn from her face and limbs. Ugly horseflies landed on her exposed flesh before flying away, disinterested in her bloodless offering.

James nearly vomited.

No human could’ve survived what they’d done to her.

But Pine’s not human.

She might still be alive. She had to be. He sprinted to her and wrapped his arms around her body, trying to lift her and slacken the noose.

What are you doing? It’s not like she needs to breathe. The damage is done.

But still he held on. Maybe she could feel him, would know she was safe now.

“Pine?”

She didn’t answer. That doesn’t mean anything. She may have shut herself down. James swore. There was no way to tell if she was alive. They’d given synadroids emotions, so why couldn’t they have gone the whole mile and made them breathe as well?

I’ll be having a word with Joseph about that oversight.

The thought was giddy, wild. He needed to calm down and focus. It wasn’t like him to be so frenetic; his years of training had made sure of that.

Breathe and focus. You’re not going to help her this way.

He took a shuddering breath and examined the rope they’d used to lynch her. It was made of thick fiber—there was no way he’d be able to untie her.

I’ve got nothing on me. He’d rushed after her without a second thought, totally unprepared. A laugh that was more of a yell burst from his lips. He’d been in such a hurry that he hadn’t even called Joseph.

Joseph.

The thought of Joseph was like a steadying hand. One foot in front of the other. He had to be going out of his mind by now. What was this going to do to the old man? Keeping one arm around her, James yanked his transcomm from his pocket, willing the dark screen to give him the answer. When it lit up, nearly a dozen missed alerts from Joseph scrolled across the display. James was about to hit reply when he had a better idea.

He tightened his arm around Pine’s waist. Please let her feel it. Let her know I’m here, that I’ve come for her.

He lifted his transcomm to his mouth and spoke into it.

“Private line, 1883. Blue Fairy.”