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Blackbringer, p.21
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       Blackbringer, p.21

           Laini Taylor
 
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  On shelves high and low creatures stood and crouched, frozen still, their eyes peeled open but lusterless. There were varmints with their tiny claws outstretched, tails curled, whiskers eerily still. Mice, voles, raccoons. A long row of dull-eyed birds stood upon the highest shelf and below them, a sad little collection of their nests and eggs. Nothing moved. For a moment Magpie thought the creatures were under some enchantment, but then she saw the jars.

  They were jars not unlike those in a manny’s pantry, from which she’d once or twice pilfered jelly. But in these were no apricots or honey, only creatures afloat in stinking liquid. Skinks, snakes, tiny frogs. Nothing moved. Nothing breathed. So many eyes in the room, and nothing blinked.

  “All dead . . . ,” murmured Talon, stunned. Ill from the stink and the horror of it, he quietly took Magpie’s hand. She held it tight.

  “It’s a collection,” she whispered, seeing how each dead thing was labeled in neat letters.

  “It’s murder,” Talon answered.

  They heard muttering at the same moment their eyes fell on the butterflies. Case after case hung on the wall, of butterflies and moths pinned open dead and arranged like art.

  And there in their midst was Batch Hangnail.

  He stood poised at the edge of a tall cabinet. He seemed to be wearing wings. As Magpie and Talon watched, he brought his hands together, bent his legs, and sprang. It was the imp version of a swan dive, and for a moment he seemed to float, his luna moth wings catching the air, and a pure and nearly beatific look of hope came into his face. The next moment he dropped like a stone and hit the ground cursing.

  “Come on,” Magpie said, dropping Talon’s hand and taking to her wings. Talon followed, leaping easily from cabinet to cabinet. They reached the corner the imp had plunged from and found there a sickening sight. The luna moth wings had not been Batch’s first attempt, clearly. One of the framed displays had been smashed open and plundered, and the cabinet was littered with butterfly carcasses bereft of their wings. One glance over the edge at the floor showed what had become of them. A litter of wings had gathered below in a drift, like leaves beneath an autumn tree, and Batch lay on his side in them, half buried and moaning.

  With an icy look Magpie stepped off the edge and dropped to land sharply in front of him. He peeled open one eye and saw her, snapped it shut again, and redoubled his moaning. “Oh, woe . . . ,” he whimpered in scamper. “Woe to poor Batch . . .”

  “Get up,” Magpie said impatiently, nudging him with her foot, then harder when he didn’t respond. “I said get up!”

  Snuffling, he sat upright. A pretty blue morpho wing was plastered to the dribbling mucus on the side of his face.

  “You’re lucky those butterflies were already dead, imp, or you’d have a bitter time of it!”

  “Already dead . . .” He nodded and moaned. “Mannies killed ’em, not me! I just want to fly away. . . .”

  “You didn’t really think dead wings would fly you, now, did you?”

  The great slubbering imp sat in the sad debris of spent wings and sobbed. Talon came headfirst down the edge of the cabinet like a lizard and stood next to Magpie, and they both listened as the imp moaned about how the magic had worn off his flying surrey as he made his great escape.

  “Can’t really blame a wretch for wishing to fly,” Talon said under his breath.

  “Neh, perhaps, so long as he’s given up on maiming faeries. But you know what I can blame him for?” She knelt down in front of Batch and forced him to look her straight in the eyes as she said, “For not telling me about his master’s tongue.”

  The life seemed to drain from Batch, so that he drooped into a miserable, quivering mass. “The tongue . . .” He fumbled for the tip of his tail with shaking hands and shoved it into his mouth, commencing to suckle it with loud, wet sounds, and his eyes squeezed tight shut.

  “Imp, listen up!” Magpie said harshly, in no mood for pity. “You left out some details before, neh? And because of it I lost some friends to your master! Now you’ll tell me something else. You said your master sent you to the Magruwen for a turnip. Well, that’s blither! What’s he really after?”

  With a long snuffling sigh Batch answered her. Speaking around the tail in his mouth, he said something sounding like, “Mommamammid.”

  “Eh?”

  “Mommamammid!” He repeated the slobbering mumble until Magpie reached out and yanked his tail. “Pomegranate!” Batch said as it whipped out of his mouth, flinging a spray of warm spittle.

  Wiping her hands and grimacing, Magpie repeated, “Pomegranate?”

  Batch nodded.

  “Well, that doesn’t make much more sense than a turnip! What’s he want it for?”

  “Flotched if I know!” retorted the imp. His tail groped for a large and particularly lovely monarch wing, and he held it to his face and honked his nose into it repeatedly before crumpling it and tossing it back onto the heap. Particles of orange wing clung to his quivering nostrils.

  “A pomegranate,” Magpie said to Talon. “What the skiffle?”

  Batch caught sight of Talon’s face then and did a double take. “Munch! Ye’re one of them shouty faeries,” he declared, drawing back.

  “Aye,” said Talon. “You want to tell me what happened to the others you saw?”

  The imp sniffed and snuffed, wiped at his eyes and nose with the backs of his hands, pulling himself together. “Master happened,” he told him with a shiver that worked itself all the way down his tail and set his rings to rattling.

  Talon noticed the brass handles on the cabinets were rattling too and realized it wasn’t Batch’s shiver that was doing it. He nudged Magpie and said, “Mannies,” and they both turned to the door.

  “Quick,” Magpie said. “Put on your skin. And you, imp, you’re coming with us.”

  As Talon pulled his falcon skin out of his pocket Magpie visioned the glyph for floating and Batch rose right up out of his mound of butterfly wings with a squeal. Magpie stepped hastily into her bird glamour and grabbed his tail.

  By the time the crowd of white-frocked lasses thundered into the room for class, all they glimpsed were the shadows of a falcon and a small brown bird darting out the open window, dragging a squealing rodent through the air behind them.

  “Hoy! There’s the lad in his skin!” Magpie heard Swig’s voice. “Jacksmoke, Ming, there’s the imp!”

  Still in their disguises, Magpie and Talon flew up to the roof of the school as Swig and Mingus came sweeping toward them, cawing out the squawk that would alert the others to come. “Ye seen Mags, lad?” demanded Swig. He gave the little brown bird a curious look as it deposited the imp on the broad stone ledge of the roof, and just then it shivered and turned into Magpie.

  Swig and Mingus gasped.

  A hint of dizziness came over Magpie, and she teetered slightly on the edge of the roof before Talon reached out fast and grabbed her wrist. “Steady!” he said.

  “Eh, Mags, y’all right, pet?” the birds fussed, but their voices were cut off by the noisy arrival of Pup and Pigeon, followed shortly by Calypso and Bertram.

  “Ye don’t go off without telling us, ye hear?”

  “Gave us a fright!”

  “No more disappearing!”

  Magpie let them carry on for a moment, but when their scolds showed no sign of slowing, she cut in loudly, “Ach, birds! Stop spathering! We found the imp, neh? And I found out what the Blackbringer was after.”

  “Eh, what?”

  “A pomegranate!”

  “For true?” They all cast skeptical glances at Batch. Pigeon asked, “Ye sure he en’t lying?”

  “I don’t know,” said Magpie. “You lying, imp?”

  But Batch wasn’t paying attention. He was watching with a queer gleam in his eye as Talon folded up his falcon skin and put it in his pocket.

  “Where’d that bird come from before, Mags?” Mingus asked.

  “You mean this bird?” she said dramatically, conjuring the glamour and st
epping into it. All the birds exclaimed and puffed up their feathers.

  “How’d ye do that?” demanded Pup.

  Magpie told them about Strag and they made her show them the bird again and again, and though she was smiling and laughing, the dizziness suddenly overcame her again. This time it was Calypso who steadied her.

  “What’s that, ‘Pie?” he demanded.

  “Nothing.” She tried to shake it off. “Look, it’s time we get down the well, neh? I’m keen to know what this pomegranate is all about.”

  Calypso was studying her closely. He said, “Ye’re in no shape for it, little missy. Look at ye, swaying on yer feet. Sure ye’re not fit to match wits with the Djinn King! Ye need to rest, pet, like I been saying.”

  “There’s no time for that, Calypso!” she protested, but even she could hear the feebleness in her voice as she said it. Her arms and legs felt leaden and slow, and her eyelids heavy. Stubbornly she claimed, “You don’t just sleep at times like this. Anywhich, it’s nightfall, and the Blackbringer will be going on the hunt anytime now.”

  “And what do ye think ye’ll do if ye see him? Fight him, in this state? That’d serve the world poorly, I ken, getting yerself killed!”

  “I’ll be fine!”

  “I’m sure ye will be, after some food and some sleep.”

  Magpie tried to argue, but Calypso just looked back at her through eyes narrowed to slits, and she knew this was one she wouldn’t win, because she knew he was right. She wasn’t fit to meet either the Djinn or the Blackbringer right now. But she did hate to lose an argument so she kept on, hands on hips. “What if the Blackbringer goes back for the Magruwen tonight, eh? And we just sleep through it?”

  “Is that the well?” Talon asked, pointing across the school gardens that lay blue in the twilight below.

  “Aye, that’s it.”

  “Can’t we just keep a lookout while you rest?”

  Magpie chewed her lip.

  “Aye, Mags. Sure there’s someplace cozy to camp in the attic,” said Bertram. “It’s just under our feet. We can fix ye up a nice little bed.”

  And so it was decided, they would take a few hours of rest while the crows kept a close eye on the Djinn’s well.

  The sprawling attic of the great manor was one long, dark, low-ceilinged room full of cobwebs and sheet-draped shapes that loomed like phantoms in the crimson light of evening. Mingus and Swig flew off together to steal food while the rest went in through a broken window. The faeries prowled among the stacks of old steamer trunks, dressmaker’s mannequins, and crates of mysterious junk, looking for a place to make camp. They peered through the cracked door of a giant armoire and found it already occupied by bats. They lifted the visor of a suit of rusted armor to a pungent wilkie nest. In one corner a fort had been built of musty books, but a hobgoblin was curled up inside reading a romance by candlelight and he waved them angrily away.

  Finally they found a trunk with its lid flipped open, filled with a pile of old silk slips. Dust lay over it thick as snow, but Magpie and Talon climbed in and pushed the top layer of slips carefully into one corner, rolling the dust up with it, and the layer beneath made as soft a nest as they could have hoped for. Magpie called out quietly to the crows, and they winged their way through the dim forest of broken hat racks to perch on the trunk’s edge, depositing Batch inside with a grunt and a squeal.

  The faeries watched as the scavenger rubbed at his backside and dug through the silks to come up with a diamond ring. His eyes lit up. Magpie just shook her head, the serendipity never ceasing to amaze her. Why, she wondered, had no scavenger imp happened to be present at her blessing? Here was a gift she could have used. Not for diamonds, sure, but useful things, like where the Blackbringer was lurking now. Batch mumbled, “I sat on it, it’s mine!” and Magpie and Talon shrugged as he strung the ring onto his tail with all the others.

  Finally giving in to her fatigue, Magpie collapsed into the deep cushion of silks and groaned, “I can’t decide if I’m more hungry or more tired.”

  “Ach, Mags, ye don’t need to decide. I know ye can eat in yer sleep,” teased Bertram.

  “Aye, that I can. I’ll just lie here with my mouth open and when the food comes, drop some in.”

  That sounded good to Talon too, who flung himself down on the silks and lay there, sunk in the luxurious fabric, while a bone-deep exhaustion settled over his limbs and eyelids. The exhaustion was strangely satisfying. It brought to his mind the warriors returned from a web raid, lounging in front of the great fireplace laughing and chewing lazily at whatever was put into their hands before falling asleep one by one to the glissando of their aunts’ harps.

  Swig and Mingus returned, carrying between them a linen napkin that they unfolded in the trunk to reveal an instant picnic of white cake, walnuts, sugared plums, and damp, dirty radishes just plucked from the garden. Pup and Pigeon took some away with them to keep the first watch, while Mingus tossed Magpie a little square wrapped in paper. “Here, Mags,” he said.

  “What’s this . . . chocolate? Chocolate?” She swooned. “Ach, Mingus, you always were my favorite!”

  The other crows squawked in protest and Talon watched with curiosity as Magpie unwrapped the paper to reveal a simple brown square. She sniffed it and swooned again with rapture, and it all seemed a bit of a fuss to Talon, over a little brown square. He could tell Mingus was pleased, but the crow didn’t say much until Magpie insisted he take the first bite.

  “Not on yer feathers. I stole it special for ye. Eat, lass, eat.”

  “I’ll save it for dessert,” she decided. “I like that, cake for dinner and chocolate for dessert!”

  Talon found that hunger did in fact win out over exhaustion, and he dragged himself within reach of a walnut, a plum, and a bit of cake. Between six crows, two faeries, and an imp the feast didn’t last long, and soon they were listening to Batch lick and suck every last dribble of plum syrup from his fingers and toes.

  Magpie caught a glimpse of his pink tongue gently probing between his toes, and she grimaced and turned toward Talon, producing again the little brown square. “Ever tried chocolate?” she asked.

  He shook his head and she grinned. “You won’t believe this,” she told him, breaking him off a corner.

  Skeptically he took it, and he saw she was waiting to watch him eat it, and he squinted at her. “This some prank?” he asked.

  “Neh! It’s why humans aren’t all bad. The Djinn might’ve dreamed up the cacao tree, but humans made this from it! Go on.”

  So he tasted it. His eyes went wide, then closed, and he sank back into the silk and let the flavor overtake him. He could hear Magpie and the crows laughing at him, but it wasn’t nasty laughter and it didn’t bother him at all. When he’d finished eating his bit, he asked shyly, “Do you think I might take a taste to my sister?”

  Magpie smiled. “Aye, sure! It can be my thanks for the use of her room!” She ate her own corner of the sweet and insisted on all the crows having a nibble. Then, catching a longing look from Batch, she flicked him a little piece too. The remainder she wrapped back up in the paper to save for Nettle, then sank back with a groan. “Thanks for the food, birds and mannies,” she said sleepily, then, as if remembering something, turned to Talon. “That was a fine phantasm you made before.”

  “You saw it?” he asked. “What, can you see through fences too?”

  “Neh, but when it jumped out of the tree and near landed on the cat’s head.”

  Talon laughed. “That? No doubt it looked a fine phantasm—that was me.”

  “You, you?” She lifted her head. “I thought you were doing a spell.”

  “Sure, but first I had to get him to follow me, neh? Once he came through the fence he caught sight of the phantasm and chased it off.”

  Magpie shook her head at him. “You tetched?” she asked. “Pouncing on that meat? I wouldn’t have let you.”

  “And who are you to let or not let me?” he asked, amused.

 
She shrugged. “It’s your first journey beyond, neh? I feel responsible for you.”

  “Well, you’re not.”

  Calypso cut in, “We’re all responsible for each other and that’s how it is, lad. When ye’re with us that goes for ye too, be ye a prince or neh.”

  Talon flushed at the scolding. “I didn’t mean—” he started to say, but Magpie cut in.

  “Piff! You should’ve seen him jump on that cat, birds. Like a lunatic!” It sounded like a criticism, but Talon saw the same wondering smile at the corners of her lips as when she’d called his skin “uncommon,” and he found himself blushing just the same too. “I want to see a phantasm, though,” she went on. “You too tired to make one?”

  “I can muster one up,” he said, pushing himself up on his elbows. He squinted a little in concentration, and while Magpie and the crows looked on, a ghost of himself seemed to stand up and step out of his body. It flickered a little, looked around, and suddenly leapt up onto the edge of the trunk between Calypso and Bertram, where it performed a silly dance before backflipping off the side and blinking out in - mid-air.

  The crows squawked and laughed and Talon collapsed back onto his back, grinning. “Sharp!” Magpie cried, clapping.

  Within his fort of books the hobgoblin had come to a smooching scene and shouted for them to pipe down.

  “How’d you do it?” Magpie asked Talon.

  “It’s the fifth glyph for phantom,” he told her, “joined with what you want your phantasm to be—I used ‘self’ there, but you don’t have to. Then you just picture what you want it to do.”

  Magpie’s brow furrowed in thought. “I only know four glyphs for phantom,” she said.

  “Oh, aye?” he asked casually, adding, “I know six.”

  “Six?” she demanded. “Flummox me! Can you show me that one you just did?”

 
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