Roadside magic, p.1
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       Roadside Magic, p.1

           Lilith Saintcrow
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Roadside Magic


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  For L.I, again, as promised.

  Hark, hark, the dogs all bark,

  The beggars are coming to town,

  Some in rags, and some in jags,

  And one in a velvet gown.

  —MOTHER GOOSE

  VENGEANCE

  1

  She waited, perched next to a stone gargoyle’s leering, watching the rubies of brakelights, the diamonds of headlights. Smelling exhaust and cold iron, a breath of damp from the river. A hint of crackling ozone—lightning about to strike. The faint good aroma of a soft spring rain approaching.

  He did not keep her waiting long.

  “Oh, my darling. What fine merriment we have had.” Goodfellow melded out of the darkness, his boyface alight with glee. “You are the best of children, delighting your sire’s heart so ful—”

  The song hit him squarely, fueled by Robin’s calm, controlled breathing, and knocked the Fatherless to the ground. She was on her feet in an instant, the stolen crowbar burning in her palms as she lifted, brought it down with a convulsive crunch. Iron smoked on sidhe flesh, and by the time she ran out of breath and the song died, thick blue blood spattered the rooftop, smoking and sizzling.

  “You,” she hissed between her teeth. “You killed her. You pixie-led her car. You killed Sean. You did it.”

  Amazingly, Puck Goodfellow began to laugh. “Aye!” he shouted, spitting broken teeth. They gleamed, sharp ivory, chiming against the roof. “Robin, Robin Ragged, I will kill all those close to thy heart, I will have thy voice!” He slashed upward with his venomtip dagger, but Robin was ready and skipped aside.

  Not today. She didn’t say it. She’d finished her inhale, and the song burst out again, given free rein.

  Smoke, blood, iron, the crowbar stamping time as the razor-edged music descended on the Fatherless. Some whispered that he was the oldest of the sidhe, some said he remembered what had caused the Sundering. Others sometimes hinted he was the cause of the division in the Children of Danu, the Little Folk, the Blessed.

  When the song faded, Robin dropped the crowbar. It clattered on the roof.

  The thing lying before her was no longer sidhe. Full-Twisted and misshapen it writhed; its piping little cries struck the ear foully.

  She bent, swiftly, and her quick fingers had the pipes and the dagger, Puck Goodfellow’s treasures. The Twisted thing with its hornlike turtle-shell swiped at her with a clawed, malformed hand, and its voice was now a growl, warning.

  Her breath came high and hard, her ribs flickering. The dagger went into her pocket, its sheath of supple leaf-stamped leather blackened and too finely grained to be animal hide. The pipes—she almost shuddered with revulsion as she poked a finger in each one, and near the bottom, where they were thicker, she touched glass thrice.

  Three glass ampoules, like the ones she had bargained MacDonnell’s kin into making. Decoys within decoys, but these held a sludge that moved grudgingly against its chantment-sealed container. A true cure. Like her, he had decided the only safe place to hide such a thing was in his own pocket.

  The Twisted, back-broken thing that had been Puck Goodfellow struggled to rise. Morning would probably find it here, too malformed to speak or walk. It might starve to death, it might cripple out the rest of its existence like Parsifleur Pidge, though she had Twisted it far past that poor woodwight’s ill-luck. Robin looked down at it, tucking the pipes in her other pocket.

  They were powerful, and there was no better time to learn their use.

  “For Daisy,” she said quietly, “and for Sean.”

  The thing writhed again, trying to rise, the thick shell of bone on its corkscrewed back scraping the roof. Robin turned away. Full night was falling, and she had only one thought now.

  I must find a place to hide.

  THE SAVOIGH LIMITED

  2

  All through that long day, the thing on the rooftop smoked, rocking back and forth belly-up on its bony shell. Its flaccid limbs flopped uselessly; cloudy spring sunshine striped it with steaming weals. It made tiny, unmusical sounds, lost in the noise of traffic below. Horns blared, engines gunned, the murmur of crowds enfolded it. The sun was cruel, for all it was weak, and the thing’s eyes were runnels of black tar pouring down its wasted cheeks. Once proud and capering, it was now a Twisted wreck, its wounds still seeping. She had been thorough, the avenging child.

  As thorough as he would be, soon. But first, he had to survive the assault of the mortal sun; iron-poisoned and Twist-wounded as he was, it burned as if he were one of Unwinter’s dark-creeping legions. The heavy-misting rain was no balm, full of poisonous city fumes and the stinking effluvia of the metal the foolish salt-sweet mortals used to scar every piece of free soil they found.

  Had it been summer, their sun might have finished the work the daughter had begun.

  Below, the Savoigh Limited throbbed. Once its stone facade and plaster walls, ornate fixtures and heavy-framed mirrors had been new, then outdated, then seedy, and now refurbished. The winds of urban gentrification blew erratic but inexorable, and the Savoigh, with its uniformed doormen and its high-rent offices, its tiny cold-water studios for the bohemians and its ancient, growling boiler in the basement, had become that most terrible of structures: a fashionable heap.

  Rocking steadily, the rhythm of the thing’s shell quickened as it threatened to topple. Its piping sounds became more intense, tiny, malformed cries of effort. They soaked through the rooftop’s rough surface, burrowing down.

  Afterward, if the residents of the Savoigh Limited remembered that chill spring day at all, they remembered an endless string of bad luck. Printers jamming, coffeemakers sputtering, milk and creamer clotted and sour even before their sell-by dates. A scented candle shattered on the fifth floor, spilling hot wax across important paperwork and almost catching the drapes on fire. Plaster sagged. Stray cats wandered in, yowling, and didn’t leave until the aroma of their urine soaked the entire building. The boiler sputtered and creaked, moaning, its displeasure felt through wooden floors. Fingers jammed in doors and drawers, toasters overheating, electrical outlets sparking when the cords were jiggled, four fender-benders out front, and the doormen decrying the paucity of tips. Toes catching on carpets, stairs missed and neckbreaking tumbles barely averted, papers scattered and microwaves either not heating anything or scorch-burning it to the container, two mini fridges inexplicably ceasing to work, and more.

  All through this, the rocking continued, the creature gaining inches across the roof. Lunchtime came and went, and it became obvious what the thing was aiming for—a pool of shadow in the lee of an HVAC hood, ink-shadow lengthening as the sun tipped past its zenith.

  The ill-luck below crested, and one or two of the artists in the studios—their windows facing blank brick walls, their floors humped and buckled as the building settled into gracious decay—saw tiny darts of light in their peripheral vision, gone as soon as they turned their heads. One thought he was having hallucinations and began to furiously paint the two canvases that would make him world-famous before he slid into a hole o
f madness and alcohol. The other, her recording equipment suddenly functioning, began to play cascades of melody on her electric piano, and for the rest of her life never played from sheet music again. Her compositions were said to cause visions, and she retreated from the world years later to a drafty farmhouse in Maine.

  Rocking again. Tipping on the horn-thick edge of the bony shell, sliding into blessed coolness for a moment as the shade swallowed it, back the other way, teetering on the opposite edge, a sharp whistling cry as it pitched back into the shadow, hesitated on the brink . . .

   . . . and toppled over, landing with a flat chiming sound, out of the killing daylight.

  Stillness. Below, paint splashed, music floated down an empty hall, printers suddenly rebooted, the two mini fridges just as inexplicably started working again. A hush descended on the Savoigh Limited, and as the sun-scarred creature huddled under its shell in its dark almost-hole, a rumble of thunder sounded in the distance.

  The spring storms were on their way.

  A STRANGER’S BED

  3

  Robin Ragged’s throat burned. So did her eyes, every tear she had dammed behind a blank expression threatening to spill free in a bitter flood. There was a joy in solitude, certainly—no bright avid gazes, no crimson lips sneering or whispering hurtful gossip behind scented fans—but it meant she had no reason to keep her face a mask, or her heart a stone.

  So she walked alongside the weed-flanked road, a slim, bare-shouldered woman in a blue dress, her black heels making crisp little sounds on cracked paving. Despite the tangled glory of her redgold curls, no gaze caught on her, no catcalls pierced her sphere of numbness. Of course, any mortal sensitive enough to see her would no doubt be wise enough to keep his foolish mouth shut, unless he was of the mad or feytouched.

  If he was, she would have to find some means of making certain her presence wasn’t babbled about. The thought filled her with exhausted revulsion, even if she did have a knife now.

  A leafbladed curve in a finely grained, age-blackened sheath hung from a stolen belt low on her hips, chantment-knotted leather attaching it securely, and every time her hand brushed the bone hilt, a queasy thrill sank through her. She was no knight or assassin; death did not delight her as it did some.

  Oh, come now, Robin. There is a certain death that would delight you.

  That was a useless, dangerous thought, so long practice swept it neatly under a mental carpet. Such a habit, born of long years at Court, was convenient enough.

  Especially if you sought to hide a truth from yourself.

  It would have been best to leave the city. No realm, sideways or mortal, would hide you forever if both Summer and Unwinter wanted to find you badly enough. The easiest entrances to Summer moved slowly, sometimes on one continent, sometimes another—but Unwinter could find a way through anywhere, its borders only ever a step away, its blood-freshened thresholds losing their vigor only slowly over centuries. Still . . . the mortal world was weary and gray, but it was also wide, and she could lead a merry chase before she was inevitably brought down. Was it worth it?

  Worry about that later. There was one last debt to be paid before Robin could strike out into the mortal world and leave the sidhe to their plague. Now that Summer’s borders had been broken, the infection was very likely to spread.

  It’s what she deserves.

  Well, yes, but all the other sidhe, especially the lesser who sickened so quickly? Even the ones she’d never met, or the elfhorses, or . . .

  Robin found herself, as the sun reached nooning and tried to pierce a veil of damp-misting cloud, in almost-familiar territory. Thin metal walls, squatting trailers and mobiles, weeds forcing up between cracks in the paving, broken-down fences and trashwood behind the huddled backs of every small squatting domicile. She blinked, pushing her hair back from her forehead, brought back to full, uncomfortable alertness.

  She was not grief-mazed enough to wander into the trailer park that had recently held the Queen’s prized human pet, the scientist who had mixed the black boils of plague in his little glass bottles and whirling machineries under the benign glow of his computer. She could not step there again for many long mortal lifetimes, not if she wished to remain breathing. The Unseelie had gone a-hunting through that particular mortal space, though now she knew Jacob Henzler’s death hadn’t been of their making.

  No, they had only ridden in the Goodfellow’s wake, and though she had struck Puck down in vengeance, she had not added Henzler’s name to the list of those she was avenging. Perhaps she should have.

  Too late. Look about you now, and plan.

  This was another sad little collection of tin cans masquerading as homes clinging to a neglected slice of the city, but there was a certain comfort to be found in its familiarity. Faded paint and rusting walls, the cars up on concrete blocks threaded through with tall weeds, the ramshackle fences and sun-bleached children’s toys scattered and overgrown, the trampolines—three of them in this park alone—sitting proudly, like the status symbols they were.

  There were nice parks, she supposed, with mortals who chose to live in such structures and cared for them. Once, her mother had even received a catalog—BRAND-NEW HOMES! EASY LIVING! Smiling faces, a family grouped around a grill on a patio, all airbrushed until they looked almost like sidhe. Bright smiles, clear skin, but without the sharp, glossy sheen of the sideways realms. Instead, theirs was a purely mortal beauty, interchangeable and brief. Young Robin, not knowing anything about the sideways realms, had thought that the only kind of loveliness once, and a good one, too. Something to be yearned for.

  She and her sister had played the game so often. When I have my own trailer I’m gonna . . . Choosing features, deciding about drapes and carpets, the height of luxury a big television and a man whose job kept him gone most of the time. And all the magazines, Daisy would whisper. I’ll cut out them pitchers and make them murals, Rob. You see if I don’t.

  Stone and Throne, but Daisy had loved her magazines. She could escape into anything sent monthly—Robin would steal them from the drugstore or the supermarket, neighbors’ houses or doctors’ offices, her technique practiced and sure. It didn’t matter what they were about—racing, hunting and fishing, fashion, cooking, anything—Daisy perused them all with the same grave attention, a small line between her childish eyebrows and her redgold hair, paler than Robin’s own, falling forward in sleek curls.

  Not knowing what had killed her baby sister was bad enough, but to find out she had been pixie-led into a car accident by Puck himself, and then the biggest lie of all . . . or was it truth?

  Dearest Robin, who did you think you were named for?

  Robin almost staggered. Noon, and she had not yet found a hole to hide in. She needed rest, and milk if she could find it. Half-n-half, sun-yellow butter, even the falsity of flavored, sugar-drenched creamer would do. Anything.

  At the end of the street, a brown-and-white trailer slumped. Instinct drew Robin toward it, but before she went any further she turned thrice widdershins, against the direction of the sun. She also touched the matted lock of hair tied carefully with blue silken ribbon on the left side of her head, under the longer sweep of her curls. Next to it, the bone comb nestled, and two long pins, well secured. She needed none of them at the moment, but the elflock was reassuring. You could always tell a Half—or really, any mortal with a tinge of sidhe blood—by the little things. A seam left unraveling, a habit of turning in a complete circle, a single item of clothing worn inside out. Such things had been known to fox pursuit ever since mortals appeared.

  Nowadays, simple unbelief sometimes worked, but that was a luxury the Ragged did not have. Long ago, she might have been able to knock at a door and beg a cup of milk and leave a small chantment of spite were she refused, or gratitude if not. It might have even been the best kind, warm from an udder grass-fed and sun-sweetened, not pale and processed. It was more difficult to steal fresh cream these days, with cold i
ron fencing miserable cows in lots full of refuse and excrement.

  Her chosen trailer was old but neat and trim, the postage stamp of a yard edged. Three newspapers sat soggy on the trailer’s porch, and the top one looked fresh. She could have checked the dates, but why bother? She had only the foggiest remembrance of how the mortals counted time anymore. There was Summer’s half of the year, and Unwinter’s. More did not concern a sidhe, especially at Court. The mortal world changed, fickle as the sidhe themselves, and the mortals dragged cold iron from the earth’s halls to poison every living bit of green. Sooner or later, though, their machines would fail, their cities would crumble, field and forest would return.

  Or so some of the sidhe said, affecting at prophecy.

  Robin climbed the rickety porch steps, ignoring the stuffed-full mailbox. No screen, the porch light still burning, and the trashcan, empty, sat at the end of the gently hillocked gravel driveway. The door was locked, of course, but almost any mortal lock was glad to help a sidhe along. This one was a little happier than most, and she nipped quickly through.

  It was close and fusty inside, and Robin halted as a cat hissed from atop a humpbacked couch in a darkened living room. It was a sleek beast, a black pelt with white collar and cuffs, its wide green eyes lambent in the shuttered gloom. The kitchen was poor but clean, she saw with a glance, and while the place smelled close, it did not reek of dank neglect. Any sidhe seeking shelter here would find it agreeable. In the old days, a slatternly kitchen would be left stuffed full of ill-luck and maddened pixies.

  The cat, catching a breath of sidhe, hopped off her perch and trotted to make acquaintance, forgetting her initial shock. Half sideways themselves, felines were always a good omen, even if they did sometimes hunt scatterbrained pixies and small liggots. Robin bent to scratch behind the ears, smooth the fur along the spine, and whisper a thread of chantment. No mortal in the house that she could hear, and she could be gone in a moment should one arrive. The little catkin here would serve as a handsome sentinel.

 
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