Kin, p.1Lili St. Crow
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Copyright © 2015 Lili St. Crow
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
TWO DARK-HAIRED YOUNG MEN, LEANING ON EACH other as if drunk. One of them reels, retching and coughing, the other makes soft soothing noises. There is a faint gleam—something silver, plucked from the drunkard’s pocket. He grabs for it, almost topples, and his helper speaks softly.
This is a small town, and the train is waiting. The two have twenty minutes before the train is resealed and plunges through the Waste, flora and fauna both Twisted from stagnant and wild Potential. Sometimes a train derails, other times, things attack the metal intrusion. So far, though, this journey has been uneventful.
There is an alley close to the station. Its shadowed mouth swallows both young men. The darkness is complete, except for a few faint gleams—silver, again. A swaying, a sharp arc of brilliance. A meaty, thudding sound.
When a young man boards the train later, he looks faintly troubled. But he has plenty of time to reach his sleeper compartment, and is settled on a wide, comfortable seat folded down into a bed when the whistle blows, a high piercing demand. Layers of charm seal the train again, and anyone left behind for any reason has to stay in this small town. To leave anywhere, you must pay for a fresh ticket. And a new indemnity, in case the Waste eats the train.
Steam billows. Cinders fall, dirty snow, and the metal beast heaves forward.
Afterward, the station is deserted. The town slumbers, too small for its sleep to be troubled by the problems of cities—urban cores full of slopping-over Potential, a Waste of its own. There was always the small, remote chance that the Waste might move in, and swallow the town whole. The next train to come through could well encounter a wilderness, its walls shattered and its buildings jumbled, its inhabitants no longer draining off Potential to restore their surroundings to normality.
Around the station, unTwisted trees planted beside ruler-straight sidewalks rustle, their thin branches shaken by a hot wind from the Waste as a maggot-cheese moon rises higher in an uncaring sky.
The train’s whistle, in the distance, is a lonely, mournful song.
INTO THE WOODS
NEW HAVEN RECLINED UNDER THICK SUNSHINE AND fluffy cotton-wool clouds, isolated trees turning to autumn flames early this year. The rest were still that peculiar darkening green they wore right before dressing up for Dead Harvest.
Less than a week of freedom between the end of summer classes and the beginning of the last year at St. Juno’s, which meant that if you wanted to have some fun you had to grab it with both hands. It was even better when you had friends to help with the grabbing and pulling.
Which sort of explained why Ruby de Varre was sitting cross-legged on her Semprena’s still-warm bonnet, at the park on top of Haven Hill, completely alone. Summer was stuttering to a stop, so it was still warm in the sunshine, but here under a huge spreading oak tree that probably predated the Reeve there was an edge to the breeze. This tree hadn’t started turning yet, still green and vital, the sound of its leaves rubbing against each other a snakescale whisper.
Cami and Ellie had both promised to meet her at Stellar’s to get milkshakes before figuring out how best to waste this pretty nice day together. After fifteen with no sign of either she’d bailed, because who had time to wait around with so little summer left?
That just meant she was up here all alone, staring at New Haven spread out below the Hill like a fresh banquet in front of a glutton too stuffed to eat another bite. All that excitement, all that life pulsing under the ribbons of pavement, from the blighted core to the Moving Wall that separated city from Waste . . . and here she was, in jeans and a red tank top instead of school uniform but nobody to talk to. Nothing to do.
Maybe she could have stayed and waited.
Why bother, though? Ellie was always on about Avery this and Avery that, and talking about the scholarships lined up with the help of the Fletcher charm-clan. Her Potential had settled and her stepmother’d been shipped off to a kolkhoz, and that was just fine by Ruby on both counts, but every other word coming out of Ellie’s mouth was about the boyfriend nowadays.
At least Cami didn’t talk about Nico much, but she’d been even quieter than usual lately, something about etiquette among the Seven. The Families ruled New Haven but continually jostled each other, and there was some slight or another that required some diplomacy and extra gatherings. Of course, Cami as la Vultusina had to organize a few of them as neutral ground. So she was always looking off in the distance, probably worrying about caterers or how to keep Family members from drawing any blood.
Ruby sighed, leaning back on her hands. The smell of hot earth, the tang of the trees beginning to turn, exhaust from engines throbbing all through New Haven, pollen, cut grass somewhere. If her nose had begun to tingle, she could follow it and find some fun.
There was just no fun to be scented today.
She couldn’t even bask, because she’d parked in the shade, as usual. Cami didn’t complain about sunshine, but why take chances, right?
So parking in the shade made her more comfortable, and Ruby was in the habit of caring about things like that.
She squinted, and could barely see, in the hazy distance, the gray bulk of St. Juno’s. Just yesterday she’d squeaked through the High Charm Calculus final, mostly thanks to Ell’s patient tutelage and a healthy dose of luck. That caught her up after all the skipping; Mother Heloise had called all three of them into her office and told them to stay out of trouble in the upcoming year.
Last year of high school. Which meant the last year before she had to Take Responsibility. Oh, there was Ebermerle Charmcollege to attend, but a Woodsdowne girl had Duties when she turned eighteen. To the clan, to the kin, to the world. As Gran was always reminding her.
You could grow into anything, given enough time. It wasn’t Gran’s fault Ruby was lagging.
She sighed again, shaking her head, and hopped off the Semprena’s glossy blackness. Her key ring jangled as she spun it around one finger, and she caught herself grimacing. Most of her summer wasted, and her two best friends standing her up. Fifteen minutes wasn’t forever, but still. It was the principle of the thing, that was all.
No, it’s not. It’s the collaring.
The thought stopped her in her tracks. She stared up at the oak’s whispering leaves. Her skin itched a little, all over. A few deep breaths and that deep persistent scratching faded.
Gran couldn’t have meant it, could she? Collaring was for kin who couldn’t control themselves, not for girls who didn’t do what their grandmothers wanted. Right?
I should collar you, to save you from yourself. Gran’s mouth a thin line, the disapproval emanating from her in waves. All because Ruby had wanted to dance out the door without doing the dishes, and moaned theatrically when Gran called it to her attention.
Well, maybe that wasn’t quite it. She’d moaned, and stamped into the kitchen, and accidentally bumped a coffee mug into the sink. Where it shattered, and Gran maybe thought Ruby had done it deliberately?
You cannot control yourself!
It wasn’t fair. She had plenty of control. To prove it, Ruby put her hand out into the sunlight, past the dappled leafshade. Concentration made a knot behind her forehead, and the smells around her became sharper, more vivid, bursting in through her nose and painting pictures.
The rippling under her skin intensified. Like little mice, mus, the root word for muscles. A stippling, and a few scattered, fine golden-rust hairs sticking up.
Not quite painful, more like a stinging sunburn, the spots of fluid moving shade farther up her forearm a shielding coolness, twitching against her nerves.
Her nails lengthened, translucent tips hardening. Wicked-sharp, her wrist bulging oddly on one side as her hand became something . . . different.
Ruby exhaled, sharply, and forced it down. There were prickles of sweat along her lower back and under her arms, despite the breeze. Easy-peasy. Nothing to it.
She wasn’t even angry. Well, maybe a little, but that—
The cramps hit, right below her ribs. Ruby doubled over, denying the dry-heaving, shoving the sensation away. It was dangerous to shift partway, because everything in you would cry out for release.
Stray curls fell in front of her face, their red-gold burnished by more sunshine, because she’d stepped out in the full flood of it. The stinging all over her drove her into a crouch, and her palms met warm pavement with a jolt. It was work to tip her face up, her closed eyes filling with rubescent glow, lips skinned back from teeth. Finally, breath coming fast and hard, she levered herself back up and examined her hands.
Tanned, and human. She was Woodsdowne rootfamily, she was kin, and she was in control. Gran couldn’t mean what she’d said about collaring Ruby to calm her down.
Except Gran rarely said things she didn’t mean. Rarely was something of an understatement. It was more like, well, never.
Ruby swore, softly, and picked up her keys. There was nothing to do and nowhere sounded interesting.
Might as well go home.
• • •
“I’m heeeeere!” The door to the garage banged shut, and Ruby prance-galloped through the utility room as if she was six again. She danced into the living room, the tapestry with a charmer’s sun-and-moon whispering as its threads shifted, the sun’s broad smile turned knowing and friendly. Every chair and couch was overstuffed, and the place would have looked cluttered if not for Gran’s ruthless organization. Everything had a place, and there were boxes and baskets and dishes to hold everything. Gran did her active charming in a workroom off her downtown office, but she charmed at home, too. So there were the sealed bottles of charmahol and sylph-ether in the utility room, and jars containing small things—feathers, bones, brass discs, other tiny items that could hold a charge of Potential or finished charm.
Everything was jewel toned, but the shades were dark and restful. Royal blue, deep hunter green, accents of gold and thin threads of crimson, everything placed just-so.
Gran was in front of the fireplace, just straightening and brushing her hands as if to rid them of noxious dust. Crackling Potential limned her—the kin didn’t often throw high-powered charmers, but she was one of them. Oh, sure, every kin could charm a little, especially since the Reeve, but not like Gran. She could probably even set Ellie back on her heels, and Ell was a prodigy.
For a moment Gran’s gray eyes glowed with their own internal light, and her parchment hair, braided and pinned with ruthless precision, caught the radiance of the tall bronze lamps with their rice-paper shades. Afternoon sun pouring through the wide front windows almost seemed to go through her, despite the cheerful colors of her dragon-patterned housedress.
Edalie de Varre, who controlled import and export through the Waste outside New Haven, wrinkled her aristocratic nose slightly as Ruby came to a skidding halt before her and dropped a tolerable curtsy.
“Good afternoon, Granmere.” Cheerfulness dripped from every syllable, the camouflage old and comfortable as a pair of worn trainers. “Charming as always, I see.” The air around them both rippled with Potential, waves Ruby could almost-see, the smells of hay and fur and food comforting and familiar. There was beef under a defrost-charm in the kitchen, one corner of the High Charm Calc equation unknotted so the temperature would equalize swiftly, shaking off ice and keeping the meat safe. Maybe Gran planned stew or stir-fry tonight.
Gran’s mouth twitched. On another person, it would have been a fleeting expression, too small to be seen, but on her it was loud as a shout. Ruby, relieved at this sign of forgiveness, threw her arms around the older woman and hugged—gently. Gran wasn’t fragile, by any stretch of the imagination . . . but still.
Edalie patted Ruby’s tangled hair. “Good afternoon, child. I was experimenting with live flame and a Beaudrell’s charm.”
“Ellie would know if that’s a good thing or not.” Ruby shut her eyes for a moment, breathing in safety and comfort. There was a black ribbon of burning, the thread stitching together every other scent that made up home. That was funny; a Beaudrell’s charm was supposed to be odorless.
“You should know too.” Gran didn’t sound precisely disappointed, but it was close.
I do know. It’s not a good idea, but if you’re an active and experienced charmer, you can escape having it blow up and singe your eyebrows. “How am I going to be a disappointment to the entire clan if I know things like that?” The instant it was out of her mouth she regretted it, but said was said.
Gran’s hand merely paused before continuing. “Is that your goal?”
Don’t be ridiculous. “Of course not.” I just don’t see how it’s not goi
“Untrue. I met the man once, and was not impressed. He was no Child of Danu.” Gran’s arms loosened, and though Ruby wanted to hold on, she knew better.
So she loosened up, and made sure she was smiling. “You’ve met everyone.”
Gran stepped carefully away. “Living does tend to bring the world to one’s door.”
“I thought it was ‘travel makes you meet interesting people.’”
“I dislike travel.”
“You don’t like driving long distances, and you hate trains.”
A pained expression flitted across Gran’s familiar face. Were the wrinkles getting deeper, or was Ruby just looking more closely now? “We’re meeting a train tomorrow.”
“Really? A business contact, or what?”
“Kin, my child. It’s time.”
Huh. “For what?”
“For you to see him again.”
Kin. Not anyone interesting. She’d planned tonight to maybe see one of her regular boytoys before the moonrunning anyway. Toy was the only word that applied, since a Woodsdowne girl couldn’t afford to go Too Far. Besides, they were all so weak-smelling. Easily roped in, and just as easily discarded.
Still, she feigned some interest. “Who?”
Maybe she’d see Brett; things hadn’t heated up to their inevitable conclusion with him yet. Which meant him wanting to go further than making out, or thinking he could pressure her into it.
There was only once she’d been tempted to go Too Far, and it hadn’t been with a mere-human. That one hot fullmoon night, strawberries and the musk of a kinboy, Thorne’s fingertips, dyed with strawberry juice, feathering around the outside of her lips. Maybe she would have let him do what he wanted if they hadn’t been interrupted by Hunter’s approaching footsteps.
Kin by Lili St. Crow / Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance & Love have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes