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READ CHAPTER ONE: Double-Crossing the Bridge by Sarah J. Sover


The Parliament House is of course known for our darker, weirder, unique brand of fantasy....

But we bet you didn't know we also have a funny bone.

And we are so excited, because tomorrow is the debut of DOUBLE-CROSSING THE BRIDGE by Sarah J. Sover, a title recently featured both online and in print in Writer's Digest!

Get ready for heist and hilarity in a brand new adventure unlike anything we've ever released before!

READ CHAPTER ONE BEFORE THE BOOK COMES OUT TOMORROW!

1

THE HOLE IN THE WALL

Granu snatched up the quivering rat, the latest victim of Critterhole freed by a bad toss, and snorted at its futile efforts to wriggle free. The mahogany table in the low-lit cavern tavern wouldn't offer salvation tonight, not with two trolls tossing back flagons of grog in the corner booth. Any hopes the creature harbored of escaping its gruesome fate, inevitable impalement on the spike within the game’s painted wooden platform, came to an abrupt end.

Not one to ruin frivolous entertainment, Granu tossed the rat back to the waiting swog. The porcine underling with an upturned nose and beady, wide-set eyes grunted in thanks, a string of snot leaking from his nostril as his tiny wings fluttered in appreciation of her attention. His black-speckled tongue darted out to clear the mucous as he arched an expectant brow at her. She smiled but turned away. The would-be suitor picked up on her lack of interest and returned to his friends, a knot of trolls, swogs, and other sun-avoiders jostling one another for a turn at the tavern game.

Voices echoed off the stark stone walls, and a persistent drip from the cavern ceiling added to the water collecting on the table. Granu used the back of her stubby hand to clear the puddle. A green neon sign bearing the name “Goron's” flickered over the bar, illuminating the vinyl upholstery throughout the tavern and giving the place a mossy feel common to the outermost caverns of New Metta.

A shrill shriek followed by rowdy cheering marked the death of the rat and a point for the swog's team.

“He said that to her? What was he thinking?” said Fillig, picking up the interrupted conversation. He sat in the cracked forest-green booth across from Granu, gobbling fried fairy wings by the fistful.

“Kradduk only thinks of one thing, you know that.”

Granu gazed after the swog, who was no longer visible through the crowd. Snot aside, he wasn't a bad-looking potential mate. Granu had no idea why such a tasty hunk of meat was interested in her.

“Ah, my favorite topic! Me.”

A well-groomed, large troll with three chins and a killer smile appeared at the end of the booth. He used his tree-trunk thigh to shove Granu farther in, taking his usual seat beside her at the corner table past the Critterhole platform. Granu knew Kradduk only chose the spot next to her because it offered the best vantage point for scouting the tavern for mates and launching to his feet in pursuit if the opportunity arose.

Kradduk Chert wore the latest in corporate fashion, a solid black jumpsuit fitted against his bulging chest, adorned with a red burlap necktie. His booming voice and huge, rectangular head caught the eye of more than one species of female scattered throughout the cavern. Granu rolled her eyes at the flirty glances.

“And I think of more than one thing, thank you very much. I think of finely ground fetus bones, perfectly aged grog from the hills of Friddum, the feeling of Maise granite beneath my head at night, and only the sweetest, plump rumps of the most beautiful females in New Metta City resting on my slab after a full day of strenuous exercise.” He waggled his heavy eyebrows in a way that made Granu laugh.

She could never take Kradduk seriously with his goofy expressions and endless catalog of pick-up lines, no matter how obscene his words. Fillig, on the other hand, sneered in disgust as he took a long slurp of grog.

“Kradduk, you sicken me,” he muttered, setting the flagon back on the table with a sloppy thud.

Granu shook her head. She'd first met Fillig Schist in stone-blasting class. He'd been her study partner back at Vinkle U, and they’d spent countless late mornings cramming for exams. She wasn't sure how she would have gotten by without him, but he always seemed to miss the humor in life.

“You know it's just his way. He's a dirty cud-chewer when it comes down to it.” She smacked Kradduk's arm with the back of her hand, emphasizing the insult. He curled into himself as if the blow hurt, and a flirtatious smile played at the corners of his mouth and touched his eyes.

Fillig snorted. “He should show some respect, if not for the females of the world then at least for you.”

“Trolls!” said Kradduk, “I'm sitting right here and my hearing is great. But, as long as we're on the topic, I could do more for you than that, Granu.” Kradduk stuck out his tongue playfully, eliciting another groan from Fillig and a chuckle

from Granu.

The tavern was bustling at this hour, when those with day jobs celebrated surviving the sun and those with night gigs pre-gamed in anticipation for the long hours to come. The clientele of Goron's was comprised primarily of trolls and swogs, but a few brightly-feathered grawbacks and small-boned, pink-skinned molents sat scattered throughout the tavern. There was even a sniggle, small for her species but still hulking over the other patrons, her gray flesh stuffed into an alcove on the opposite side of the room like the contents of an over-filled suitcase.

Goron's didn't discriminate based on species, unlike some of the other establishments in New Metta, which allowed only higher-level creatures such as trolls, swogs, and other intelligent underlings. Some still excluded trolls due to the Billy Goat Blight, though they'd never admit it. Treating high-level creatures that way would be downright rude, not to mention illegal. Not Goron's. Any upstanding sun-avoider with cash was welcome. It was one of the things that drew Granu to the tavern.

Goron’s was far from the classiest establishment in the sector, but it was relatively clean. The green paint on the cavern walls chipped away to reveal gray stone in many places. The furniture was rotten and wobbly, and the smell was always a pleasing mixture of compost and cooked meat, never of rot or flowers, scents trolls found intolerable despite their prevalence throughout the city.

A grawback with bright blue tail feathers, iridescent green and blue down framing her face, and a razor sharp beak and tongue, made her way to their table. Dreatte was their regular server.

“Is Kradduk at it again?” she laughed as she set another round of drinks down, expertly keeping her trailing arm feathers out of the condensation accumulated on the table. Her claws rattled against the glasses. “I'm surprised he hasn't died of the yellow fingle yet.”

Grog shot out Granu's nose at the lewd reference. Fillig doubled over in laughter, nearly slamming his forehead into the thick wooden table.

Kradduk's face fell, his shoulders slumped, and he cocked his head to the side, reminding Granu of a mongrel caught eating scraps from a table. Then his mouth tightened as his wide nostrils flared in mock anger. “No tip for you.”

“I'm not concerned. You never tip well anyways,” quipped Dreatte, her round yellow eyes sparkling. Kradduk was known for throwing money around nearly as much as for throwing himself at every female, eligible or otherwise. He'd even taken a pass at a sniggle or two, though it was largely unheard of since the creatures were repulsive on so many levels. Granu couldn't fault him, though. She'd once seen a sniggle smash an entire table with his thumb simply because he wasn't happy about the way Dreatte spoke to him. Skin lesions or not, it was hot. Granu blushed at the memory.

“Pouting doesn't become you,” said Dreatte as she sashayed away, her tail swishing back and forth with each step. Kradduk craned his neck to watch her, and Granu smacked his arm again.

“What was that for?”

“Grawbacks now? Really?”

Kradduk shrugged. “Nothing wrong with diversifying your portfolio.”

It wasn't that Granu thought less of grawbacks. Some of her closest grade school friends had been grawbacks. But mating was a different story. Their anatomy didn't mesh with trolls'. Where trolls were wide, they were narrow. Where trolls were large, they were petite. Brittle bones didn't hold up to the dense mass of a troll in the throes of passion, so the two rarely intermingled. Besides, angular features were far from alluring to trolls, as small-boned Granu was acutely aware.

“A fine, sexy lady deserves to be appreciated. I don't discriminate,” Kradduk said.

Granu laughed, shaking her head. “Next it'll be molents or worse, humans.”

“What is your problem with molents, Gran?” asked Fillig. “You're forever putting them down. I didn't peg you for a back-cavern bigot.”

“Besides, Kell is a damn fine-looking dude,” added Kradduk. The bartender looked up at mention of his name then went back to his duties with the shake of his head.

“Kell is different. He brings the grog! And I don't have anything against them, I just don't find them attractive. I'm allowed to have my preferences. Besides, Kradduk would probably kill a molent if he tried to get it on with one. I mean, he's a thousand times the size of one.”

“So, you've noticed my size, then, Granu?” asked Kradduk, nudging her with his arm. Amongst trolls, the bigger, the better. A large troll could have the personality of a wet mop and the brains of a unicorn and still bring home the ladies.

“Everything is suggestive with you!” Granu said, her face flushing. “You're the largest troll I've ever met, but that doesn't mean anything. You're like my brother.”

When Kradduk and Fillig got together, they had a way of keeping her off balance. Fillig took everything so seriously and lured her into a real discussion while Kradduk snuck in for the kill when her defenses were down. She was fairly certain that Fillig's part was unintentional at least.

A large female troll walked past on her way to the restroom, giving Granu a reprieve as both males paused to watch, Kradduk with his flagon poised in mid-air and Fillig with his mouth agape.

“Seriously, guys, do you think staring a girl down will get you into her pants? You're like juvies watching the kiddie tank at Flopps.”

“Hush Granu, she's looking this way,” mumbled Fillig.

“You don't have a chance in heaven,” said Granu.

“Speaking of Flopps, you want to grab dinner there sometime this week?” asked Kradduk, bringing his attention back to Granu. No longer staring at the passing troll, he watched her with his head propped on his hand, the picture of nonchalance.

“Um, it's a little out of my budget right now,” said Granu. She stared off into the distance as if there were something really interesting near the far wall of the tavern.

“I'll cover you.”

“Honestly, I don't care for that place. I think it's kind of cruel to keep the humans alive until you pick one to eat. I mean, I know it's no different in the long run, I guess, but it kind of makes me a little sick.”

“Like they're smart enough to know what's happening?” Kradduk grinned.

“Wow, our Granu is a humanitarian and a speciesist. What a combination. Did that old roommate of yours get to you? What was that human-lover's name? Gill? Garve?” asked Fillig, laughing.

“Bood, you idiot. And no, I'm not about to become a vegetarian and join the human rights movement. I hunt more than you do, I bet. When's the last time you even left the city anyway?”

When Fillig didn't reply, Granu tacked on, “Yeah, that's what I thought. I just prefer my killing done quickly and with finesse. I don't like seeing their ugly little faces crying for mommies that were skewered days before. It kills my appetite.”

“If it makes you feel better, they do it too,” said Kradduk. “Unlike our shut-in here, I frequently leave the confines of New Metta. Ever been to a seafood restaurant topside? They keep their prey in tanks right by the front door, so it's the first thing you see when you walk in.”

“Of course I haven't been to a restaurant topside. I don't make a habit of dining with my food. You know, you can get a lobster skewer and a plate of oysters at Fred's without having to mingle with the herd.” Her lip curled in disgust. “Besides, I thought humans didn't accept our existence? Most think we're stories to frighten their young ones. Do you mean to tell me they tolerated you at a table with them and didn't run screaming?”

“Not exactly. TCB had a high-end seafood joint rented out so we could experience dining the way humans do.”

“Why on earth would you want to eat like an uncivilized beast? Better off chewing hay at the unicorn ranch. At least then you might get a rainbow laser

show if you spook one.”

Fillig interrupted. “Hold up for just a second. We're glossing right by something huge here. Kradduk, did you just ask Granu out?”

“No, of course not. I'd never do that.” Kradduk caught Granu's expression of faux offense and began to stutter in a very uncharacteristic way.

She decided to let him off the hook. “I don't think I'm his type any more than he's mine,” she laughed.

“What is your type, anyhow? Based on your dating history, I'd say you have a thing for the uggos,” said Kradduk.

“Hey! My dating life is none of your concern.”

Fillig tossed a few bucks on the table to cover his share of the bill and returned his wallet to his back pocket as Granu protested and Kradduk laughed.

“Well, gang,” he said, “as much as I love ragging on Kradduk and watching Granu squirm, I've got to get some sleep so I can get up with the sun for work.”

“You have some truly terrible hours, dude. You need to get a sweet gig like mine,” said Kradduk, momentarily distracted from Granu's love life.

“Yeah, well, not all of us are lucky enough to snag a job at The Covered Bridge. Some of us have to resort to hauling boulders.”

“Luck had nothing to do with it.” Kradduk waggled his eyebrows at Granu again. She tried to puzzle out the implication but was afraid to ask. Fillig, however, couldn't let it pass.

“Come on, we all know you got that job through your family connections. You're nothing but a trust fund troll turned manager to appease mommy. If it weren't for her, you'd never have landed that gig!”

The air seemed to leave the room, the lights seemed to dim. Kradduk's shoulders tightened, a red tinge creeping over the whites of his eyes. His voice lowered. “You know nothing about my mother,” he growled, the softness of his voice conveying the threat better than any amount of screaming.

Fillig blanched. “I’ve met your mother, and she's a wonderful troll. Really. She's great.”

In all the years they'd been friends, Granu only saw Kradduk fight once, the cause similar to the current situation. It was an experience she had no desire to repeat and the offender had no ability to. She had to intervene and quickly.

“Krad, he didn't mean anything by that,” she said, hoping she could pull Kradduk back. He didn't anger easily, but he had his soft spots just like any troll, and his mother was one big squishy weakness.

“Yeah, man, I'm not insulting your mom. Just you.” Fillig tacked on the joke like a life preserver, likely realizing how close he was to becoming chopped meat for the unicorn farm. As quickly as the moment emerged, it passed.

Kradduk's body relaxed, his eyes cleared, and he grinned. “In that case, I guess I won't have to eat you.”

Fillig let out a long breath. He made a show of rolling his eyes as if he hadn’t been terrified just moments before, but Granu knew better. He couldn't get out of there fast enough. Shooting a departing wink at her as he muttered hasty goodbyes, he walked away, stopping at the door to carefully don his coverings, a sunsuit with the quarry's logo plastered on the back.

Staying out of the sun was integral to a troll's continued existence, hence the lack of windows on the external wall of Goron's and all other underling establishments. While only trolls turned to stone, the sun affected all underlings to varying degrees, which was why New Metta was located entirely underground with the notable exception of The Covered Bridge. Most sun-avoiders tried to secure jobs during the night hours if they worked outside the city, but only the upper echelon succeeded. Fillig had to sleep in short shifts in sub-prime hours like most of the working class, covering his body from head to toe for his morning commute.

Granu would love to work, even day hours. She was unemployed, having lost her previous job when the young trolls she taught both entered wontog—raging troll puberty—at once. Their eyes turned red, their mouths foamed, and their bodies convulsed. They charged the smaller troll with vicious abandon and nearly turned her into a troll fillet. When she awoke in the hospital, she discovered that her high performance in academia was worthless to employers who couldn't trust her to stay alive long enough to care for, let alone teach, their little monsters. Granu, thinking about her brush with death, scratched at the scars on her arms.

“Thinking about getting a job?” asked Kradduk, his eyes lingering on her hands. For such a self-involved troll, he had moments of astute insight, which were more off-putting than his casually offensive comments.

“Don't change the subject. You almost made Fillig mess himself.”

Kradduk shrugged. “That troll's too twitchy.”

“He likely needs a change of undergarments after that.” When she got no response, Granu took the hint that he didn't want to discuss it further, so she pulled out her phone and began scrolling her FriendZone feed.

After a few minutes, Kradduk continued where he'd left off. “Any leads?”

“On what?”

“Work. You know, that thing most underlings do to earn money?”

“Oh, right. No. All the entry positions outside my field say I'm overqualified, and the ones in my field require hands-on work with wontog-aged teens. I'm just not willing to go through that again.”

“Well, my offer still stands. I have some pull at the tar fields. Work is work.”

Granu crinkled her wide, upturned nose. She wasn't quite ready to resort to shoveling tar, however much it paid. She didn't attend Vinkle University on a full scholarship to go home sticky and stinking of the pits every morning. Then again, her degree in Early Trollhood Education hadn't prepared her for the onset of wontog, so she lacked means to pay her bills. She sighed.

“I appreciate the offer, but I'm not that desperate. Yet.”

“Suit yourself, but I don't think it's very healthy to be sitting around in your own filth waiting for something to fall in your lap,” replied Kradduk.

“Well I never! My filth is fragrant, thank you very much, and while you've been seducing your way through New Metta, I've been scouring the city looking for any job remotely connected to my degree. If I didn't know better, I'd think the goats were at it again.”

“Nah, that's not their style. They go for trolls getting promotions and moving up in the world, not ones on unemployment. Besides, if the billys are involved, you’d know it.”

“Yeah, they'd at least leave the hoof print on the classifieds or something.” When the billy goats successfully foiled a troll's plans, they always left their signature mark, a cleft hoof print, somewhere. “Didn't you have a run-in with them once?”

Kradduk sneered and slouched. “Yeah. When I was a junior manager. I was about to be promoted to executive level despite the Blight, but they showed up to the most important meeting of my life. Dropped out of the ceiling like cud-chewing ninjas, dressed all in black, and armed with paintball guns. They shot up my charts and my chance at a promotion too. They even got a shot off at Marla, the only troll to reach VP level in the last ten years. She walked around with one green eye for a week, and I was stuck pushing paper for another year before advancing.”

Granu shook her head. “You'd think somebody would do something about them.”

“Well, at least most companies have Blight discrimination policies. TCB does too, so they'll never admit that was the reason I didn't get promoted. It would open them up for a lawsuit. They did come up with some fantastic goat-repellent technologies after that incident, however, and I take full credit.”

Nobody knew how the feud with the goats began, but whenever a troll was about to accomplish something important in life, the billys showed to sabotage the poor sap. They never killed or did permanent damage, but they plagued the trolls like bedbugs, a constant itch that could never be scratched.

Years ago, New Metta tried to create goat-proof seals on many entrances, but the billys were sneaky, and they had ways into every cavern in the city. The exclusion project was an enormous flop, wasting thousands of tax dollars with no success. The project ended with the resignation of Mayor Grugg, the troll who had spearheaded the campaign and the last troll mayor in present times.

Billy goat pranks were so reliable that many businesses shied away from hiring trolls, hence the moniker Billy Goat Blight. But recent litigation made many businesses fearful of lawsuits. Still, trolls rarely held the most powerful or highest paid positions for long.

“Damn billy goats,” they said in unison.

“Anyhow, I didn't mean any harm. I'm just worried about you. In all the years I've known you, you've never been one to idle,” said Kradduk.

“Where did this sudden concern come from? I'm beginning to think you have actual feelings, my friend.”

Kradduk quivered in a way that made the material of his jumpsuit stretch across his chest and arms, causing a swog crossing the room to trip and land on her face. Her tiny wings fluttered in a too late attempt to catch her balance. Granu snickered as her friend attempted to hoist her up, resulting in both swogs flopping onto the hard floor. Kradduk didn't notice.

“Perish the thought. So, how's your friend Tanna? I had a dream about her last night. The things she did to me would give you palpitations.” He licked his lips and widened his black eyes.

Granu had known Kradduk since grade school. Back then he was awkward and sweet, far from the wealthy womanizer he was today. It wasn't until his mother ate the Secretary of Underling Defense and took over the position that he became wealthy, and with money came toys, wild nights, and females aplenty. As if his looks weren't enough to accomplish the latter.

Granu threw a napkin at him, enjoying the envious way the swog looked her up and down as she finally climbed to her feet. Granu decided to play it up, leaning toward Kradduk and biting her bottom lip, keeping the female in her sight just beyond Kradduk's wide head. Kradduk shifted uncomfortably and leaned in slightly. Granu grinned, and Kradduk laughed in his utterly contagious way. She couldn't help but laugh with him, though she wasn't sure they were entertained by the same thing.

“When are you going to find a nice girl and settle down?” she asked as the swog trotted away to her own table, friend in tow. Granu nearly felt bad for her.

Kradduk's laugh ended abruptly and he leaned ever so slightly away. “You concerned about my future? That's rich. I have a plan, for your information. Once I've made my way through all of the female trolls, swogs, and other sexy ladies of New Metta in the 21-30 range, I'll find an eligible life partner, not romantic, of course, but someone I could travel with to scour the rest of the world for lovely, willing females. Maybe we'll adopt, eventually.”

Every time Kradduk was asked about his romantic future, he gave a different story, plan, or excuse.

“That one was lame.”

“Yeah, I know, I'm off my game today.” Kradduk poked at the bowl of fried fairy wings, withdrawing his attention from Granu.

Granu spent the next few hours taking in flagon after flagon of grog and even attempting to help Kradduk pick up a female troll with skin like toad hide and the largest backside either of them had seen. She was way out of his league. He failed splendidly, and the troll nipped his hand, drawing blood, before rejoining her friends at the bar. Watching Kradduk on the hunt made Granu self-conscious, even if he wasn't successful this time. It was true that she occasionally caught the eye of a troll or swog who appreciated a different sense of aesthetics, but she was keenly aware of her smooth skin and off-putting eyes. By the time Kradduk turned in for the day, Granu was ready for some time alone. She would catch no such break.

“Granu Scoria!” The voice sounded like tires on wet asphalt, and unfortunately it was familiar. A pink molent in a Hawaiian shirt tucked into high-waisted khakis approached, and by his pointed movements, he meant business.

“Mr. Picketts, how strange to run into you in here.”

“It's no coincidence! I know your type, and this is the closest sin hole to my cavern.”

Of course. Her molent landlord had hunted her down at the closest watering hole.

She sighed. “What can I do for you?”

“Where's my money?” The high-pitched squeak sounded more like plastic on Styrofoam than a speaking voice, and Granu did her best to suppress a shudder.

“I didn't expect to see you today,” said Granu as the molent hoisted himself into the booth next to her. She stifled a gag at the feel of his oiled, bristly skin against her leg. Granu tried to be progressive, to accept everyone as they were, but Fillig was right. Molents creeped her out. She'd never admit it aloud, though.

“Out with it, troll! I need my rent money, and I need it now,” he demanded, beady eyes unreadable as usual. Molents didn't have eyelids, so they constantly looked shocked by some horror known only to themselves.

“I don't have it yet. I'll get it for you soon. Please, just give me until next month,” pleaded Granu.

Picketts' long front teeth dug into his chin, and his whiskered nose twitched as he considered her. “Fine. You are on notice. One month. You will pay me what you owe plus 20% interest, or you will be out on your rump,” he said, emphasizing his words with a jab of the forefinger. “You haven't been having gentlemen callers in my apartment, have you?”

Granu's mouth dropped open. “My personal life is none of your business, old man,” she gasped.

“Get my money!”

Granu felt the blood rush to her eyes. She counted to ten, breathing deeply. It would do no good to eat the little creature, especially in front of witnesses. One of his brothers would inherit his holdings, and she'd be in the same position—or worse— if she could manage to avoid legal recourse.

“Yes, Mr. Picketts. I'll get your money. Thank you,” she replied, clenching her teeth. If she lost this place, she'd be forced to seek government housing in the Fifth Sector, which was not a place for a troll to live alone.

The exorbitant cost of living in New Metta, the most expansive city of its kind, was supported by waiting lists a mile long, and Granu had scored big to find an affordable apartment in a great location. Picketts was more patient than most landlords in allowing her any leeway on rent. All the same, his smug little face made her feel violent.

Granu was thankful when Picketts climbed out of the booth and left with a disgusted look around the tavern, but the feeling didn't last.

“Harlot!” he mumbled when he was just out of her reach. Granu's vision blurred as she lunged from the booth, intent on ripping out the molent's throat, but Dreatte stepped in her path.

“Have a drink,” chimed the grawback, slamming a flagon into Granu's hand as she grasped the troll's shoulder with the talons of her left hand and ushered her back into the booth. Granu's sight cleared enough to see the cavern door slam shut behind her very lucky landlord.

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