Wasteland king, p.11
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       Wasteland King, p.11

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  A mortal child, hearing such a voice, would also hear promise. Enticement. Laughter and carnivals, and warmth. The gray cloak would close about them in some deserted place, and after a jolting ride through the Veil, they would arrive in Summer, to a warm welcome indeed. A changeling would be left behind, a placemarker in the mortal world, and all the delights of Seelie were open to the children of mortal salt and brief blossoming.

  The other half of the coin was a childcatcher’s returning of a sleeping mortal to its home and family, most spending their lives saddened by a loss they could not quite remember, chasing the glorious fleeting almost-memories in different ways—sometimes through art, more often through drugs, each hit promising a return, however temporary, to their charmed captivity.

  The changeling, of course, had a different fate. Many had been called home to Summer and the flint knife, since the treachery.

  Many indeed.

  Summer paused. “Well? Where is it?”

  “My liege.” A note of uneasiness, in the bell-tones. “There are none left.”

  “That cannot be.” Summer’s smile had set itself in stone. Her chin lifted slightly. “There were hundreds.”

  “There are none left.” The childcatcher made a soft movement, expressing regret in the face of the inalterable. “No changeling, sleeping or waking, tarries among the mortals.”

  Summer’s sleeves trembled slightly. Below them, certainly, her hands were fists. Those soft, snowy hands held a harp so gracefully, or caressed an elf-knight’s cheek, or stroked the shoulder of an elf-maid or dryad. When Summer takes a fancy, she takes an equal amount, some whispered.

  Never very loudly, and never in her presence, of course.

  Not until recently.

  “Where did they go, then?” She smiled, winningly. “Where, in the wide wide realms of here or there, did they go?”

  “They went,” the childcatcher said, “where we may not.”

  A soft rumbling ran through Summer, from the sinks of Marrowdowne where green-clad giant hulks settled a little deeper in the mire, to the borders of the Free Counties. The rolling hills shuddered once, a mere millimeter’s worth of movement, and birds took wing from thrashing treebranches.

  “Unwinter,” Summer said, softly.

  “Perhaps.” The childcatcher’s approximation of a shrug was more definite now. “We do not know. There are none ready in the Slumbrous Caves, my liege. It will simply take time.” Those caves, where the buds of changelings swelled in mist-wreathed bulbs along walls of unformed dreams, gray flitting moths swarming each bulge… how could they be empty?

  “Time.” A bitter little laugh. “Of course.”

  But it had already vanished, stepping back through the Veil to their peculiar drowned slice of the sideways realms, full of whatever gas they breathed instead of air. Theirs was an ancient contract, and as far as they were concerned they had fulfilled its terms exactly.

  Perhaps they judged Summer too weak to hold them to account if they had not.

  “Broghan.” She did not turn. “How many mortal children enjoy our hospitality now?”

  “Ah.” He coughed slightly. Another Armormaster might have guessed she would ask, and been ready with an answer, but he had not. It was a high honor to wear the glass badge, and those who did often shared the Queen’s bed. Perhaps Broghan the Black was learning the lesson that a high honor carries a high price. “Six, Your Majesty.”

  “A bare half dozen.” Summer’s slender shoulders did not drop or rise. She turned, with slow, terrible grace. “Well, bring them hither, then.”

  “All of them?” His eyebrows did not rise.

  “Yes, Armormaster.” Her tone did not waver, but something in its depths warned she was losing patience. A sharp breeze ruffled the branches. “If I cannot have the changelings, I will be forced to use other measures. Unwinter’s foulness knows no bounds.”

  “I shall gather them at once, oh Summer.” Broghan bowed, a fine flourish at the end of the motion, and hurried away.

  Summer studied the altar’s stone face. Faint lines etched into its surface had once been deep and broad, the Pattern changing at a glacier’s pace. Some said the first trees in Summer’s orchard were dryads who stopped to study its loops and whorls, and remained, staring until they forgot any other sight. Others held that the Pattern was traced by Danu’s slight movements as the goddess slept, unaware of the Sundering in her beloved first-chosen folk. Who knew?

  Summer, left alone, turned her scarlet-draped wrist up and pushed back the fabric with one red-lacquered nail that sharpened, scraping painfully.

  The hard black boil on her pale, flawless wrist had spread, vein-branches gripping ageless skin. The delicate traceries of black exhaled a fetid breath no matter how she scrubbed with rose-attar or fresh mugwort with pixie-sprinkled dew.

  Nothing could permanently damage Summer. She was eternal, the first among the sidhe, and the Jewel Danu’s mark upon her chosen favorite. Or so the bards said. Other, darker songs told of First Summer sickening and the Sundering that followed that fair queen’s untimely death, but those were not sung even on moonlit nights. Not for a long, long while.

  Some might have begun to hum them again. The sidhe were a fickle collection of creatures, indeed.

  “I am Summer,” the Queen whispered, her carmine lips barely moving. Her other hand patted a small bag hanging at her waist, secured with a filigree chantment-chain that sparked, sensing her attention. The small glass ampoules inside did not clink together, and she’d thrown away the rag Robin had wrapped the cure in. Watching the coruscating fluid inside them, the treasures brought her by Jeremiah Gallow before he turned on her, soothed Summer. She would not use one just yet.

  Not until Braghn Moran brought her Puck’s head and the free sidhe’s treasures, the pipe and knife. Just to be sure.

  ONCE A SERVING-MAID

  22

  A door bound with dark metal opened, its clockwork hinges tick-tocking, and the Steward glided through. Robin stepped nervously in his wake, the tiny clicks of her heels loud in the hush. There were scurryings and a raft of other small noises in the rest of Unwinter’s Keep, but none of his other subjects appeared to Robin Ragged.

  She was, actually, quite grateful. Her teeth kept wanting to chatter, and faint traces of Unwinter’s myrrh-laden breath lingered in her hair. The black velvet cape-coat steamed, her living warmth melting the furred ice-diamonds of his presence as well. Between that numb freeze and the sunny, sweetened malice of Summer’s Court, there were the anarchic free sidhe, but she didn’t care much for them, either.

  The more she thought about it lately, the better hiding in some disused corner of the mortal world sounded. If she could just be left alone, really, anywhere would do.

  This particular hall was so high it appeared narrow, like all the others, its ribbed ceiling festooned with metallic, lacy cobwebs. On either side, stone rectangles rose table-high, most with a thick coverlet of dust. In the middle of the hall, however, six crystalline blocks, innocent of dust or cobweb, sat atop curved stone spines.

  Pepperbuckle slunk beside her, pressing as close as he could and still walk, her knee bumping him every few steps. The horn-fan head of the Unseelie in front of her didn’t move, and she sensed no disapproval emanating from his thin frame. Instead, a freezing soft excitement, like snowflakes on bare metal, spread out from the Steward in waves.

  There were forms inside the crystal boxes. Robin blinked twice, reaching to touch the matted elflock—not hidden under her hair anymore, and the bone comb and two pins could be seen under the chopped-short mess. No tingle of glamour ran down her skin, and the outlines didn’t waver.

  They were real.

  Breath left her in a rush. Three glass coffins on either side, and in each one a homely little sidhe creature lay with eyes closed, their small hands lax at their sides. Some had vestigial sixth fingers, all had pointed ears poking through their silken hair, whether dark or blond. Four girls, two boys, buckteeth and freckles, mo
st in pajamas and one in jeans and a Cubs T-shirt.

  She reached for Pepperbuckle’s ruff.

  They were changelings. What was Unwinter doing with them? Or did he somehow know what Robin had done, the unforgivable act she’d committed with her own blood and her Realmaking talent? Was this a threat? If she didn’t do as he wished, would he—

  The changeling closest to her, in red-striped footed pajamas, twitched.

  Robin choked back a cry, and Pepperbuckle bristled. The Steward paused, his bone fan tilting as he half turned.

  Cracks runneled the crystalline box, little sparkles of diamond dust puffing up as the changeling contorted, curling in around its narrow chest like a spider flicked into a candleflame. Robin forced herself to inhale, digging her heels in sharply as Pepperbuckle growled, the sound thrumming and splashing uneasily as the crystal spiderwebbed into cracks.

  “Ah,” the Steward hissed. “Sso sshe is forced to mortals, now.” His grinding chuckle puffed dust out through his robes, and he continued on, ignoring Robin’s hurry to catch up.

  Forced to mortals? Robin had never heard of Unwinter sending out changelings. He had… other methods, of keeping his slice of the sideways realms from sliding further into the Veil. So these were Summer’s? But why keep the changelings, if—

  Another crackling sound filled the hall’s listening depth. Another crystalline box spiderwebbed with cracks, the tiny form inside convulsing and drawing all its limbs together.

  “She’s killing the children,” Robin whispered, horrified, unable to help herself. The childcatchers wouldn’t be able to find the changelings in Unwinter’s realm, but Summer could use the flint knife on mortal flesh, too. Mortal corpses couldn’t be buried with a sapling spearing their frail chests, but the shedding of their blood carried its own power.

  “Yess.” The Steward did not halt. “My lord ssusspected sshe might.”

  Oh, God. But Robin shut her mouth, concentrating on her breath. Four in, four out. Pepperbuckle paced uneasily next to her, his proud head drooping. He didn’t like it here any better than she did. At least they both had company, and she was further grateful the hound had decided to stay with her.

  He’ll end up dead, Robin. Like everyone else you care about.

  “So he took the changelings.” Her own voice took her by surprise.

  “My lord,” the Steward replied, “hass losst patience.” The final sibilant covered another cracking, another convulsion. Robin’s stomach twisted.

  It was going to happen anyway, she told herself. You knew what happened to changelings. If she’d sent Sean home, his changeling would have been buried, or burnt, or heart-stabbed. The mortal children were returned alive, but so many of them chased the memories of their time at Court with the crude fire of drugs or pain, it hardly mattered. Every time a mortal brushed up against the sidhe, the mortal suffered.

  Robin was just as guilty as Summer, really. The only problem was, someone couldn’t be called guilty if they had no conscience, could they? Summer was a highborn fullblood, no mortal dross in her blood to grant something as stupid, as petty, as mortal as regret.

  Innocent as a cobra. Did a snake rejoice in the suffering, after it sank its fangs in prey?

  She heard another creaking fracture, and tried not to look. Her chest hurt, a swift spike through the traitorous part of her that couldn’t forget and stubbornly refused to change.

  Robin looked anyway.

  This changeling had been left for a female child. It wore a worn but well-washed blue dress trimmed with white eyelet lace, hemmed neatly many times. Small white ankle socks with more of that lace, and brightly polished Mary Janes. Changelings were often troublesome. Some mortal parents, however, considered any child a blessing, no matter how… strange.

  The Steward waited at the far door. Was he impatient?

  Had Unwinter ordered her brought by this route?

  You shall chip free Summer’s Jewel.

  As if he thought she’d need convincing.

  Robin’s chin raised. The lovingly polished little shoes danced against the stone as the body contorted. A changeling was only a placeholder left in the mortal world, soaking up enough of something to make their sacrifices nails driven in to keep the Veil from carrying Summer away. How many times, going to and fro in Summer, had Robin walked over a space held fast only by a changeling’s death?

  Pepperbuckle halted, looking over his shoulder at her, a flash of blue iris. The familiarity—Daisy, checking if her big sister was watching; Sean, brave enough to stray from Robin’s side but slyly glancing for reassurance—warmed her clear through, a clawed heat.

  If Unwinter’s breath could numb her, it might be better.

  Her footsteps tapped as she hurried to catch up with the Steward. For a moment, she thought he was about to close the door and leave her in the hall with the crackling, creaking crystal coffins, and the thought poured a river of prickles down her back. Pepperbuckle hurried at her side, his claws ticking against the floor as well, but he did not look away as he paced, trusting her to steer him along the center aisle.

  The Steward simply indicated another dark, narrow door with a bow and glided away as if on rollers; opening said door had taken much of Robin’s remaining stock of bravery. After the last few days, the Ragged thought very little could surprise her—but the round room in the heart of Unwinter’s Keep with a cheery fire and two comfortable, wide leather-backed chairs, a small table holding a clear fluted decanter of lithori, and two priceless diamond-glittering glasses might have.

  If it had not, the slim sidhe-shape standing before the fire, her pale-blue mantle of an ancient cut and her almost-platinum hair dressed high and curling with chantment ribbons, would have. For a brief terrifying moment Robin thought irrationally that it might be Summer, come to strike at her even here, but that was ridiculous.

  “Ah,” Ilara Feathersalt said, in her most dulcet tone. “A familiar face.”

  The greeting, not direct but still gracious, was polite enough. Robin braced herself. “My lady Feathersalt.”

  “You were the personage Unwinter was expecting. How… interesting. I thought it would be someone… taller.” An elegant lift of the highborn’s lip, but she indicated the chairs and the lithori, glowing fragrant in the decanter. One of her braids held a twisted golden nugget, swaying as her head turned.

  “I thought the protection my lord Unwinter promised me would be armed.” Just on the edge of insult, but not quite stepping over—even, all things balanced. Robin took a cautious step away from the door, and Pepperbuckle paced through the opening behind her. He examined Ilara from top to toe, sniffing twice, then blew out a gusty sigh and paced close to the fire.

  Ilara’s laugh was a beautiful ringing sound. She wasn’t glamouring; Robin didn’t deserve such display, being a lowly Half. Still, a mortal man looking upon her would have been dazzled. She was a paragon of fullblood beauty, fair creamy skin, the high cheekbones, the sweet mouth pale instead of carmine—of course, she wasn’t at Court—and her grace as she turned back to the fire, leaving Robin to seat herself if she chose. That gold bead swayed afresh, and Robin remembered Braghn Moran had worn many of those dwarven-crafted flowers in his dark hair, to match his lady’s coloring.

  “Protection. Aye, a Half might well wish for such, where we are bound.” Ilara merely sounded thoughtful now. She had never done Robin a service, or a disservice either. Of course, Robin was Half, and below her notice.

  “And where is that?” Robin did not sit. She gripped the back of the nearest chair, wishing she could share some of the fire’s warmth. Pepperbuckle turned, silently, toasting both his flanks and watching her with his wide blue eyes.

  Ilara pointed at the hound. “Are you certain of him? He looks a Summer creature.”

  It was a fair question. Is he one of Summer’s spies, you mean? Like me? “Certain enough.”

  “And you, held in high regard by our gracious Queen, this is how you repay her trust?”

  Robin’s husk
y laugh burst free, and the fullblood stiffened cautiously. Of course, Ilara had seen Robin sing a song or two at Summer’s bidding.

  And seen the results, as well.

  “You find me amusing, Half?” Ilara’s golden eyebrow raised. If it was an imitation of Summer, it was a good one, and perhaps unconscious. Still, one couldn’t ever be sure. Ilara’s beauty had been compared to the Queen’s one time too many, and Robin had witnessed the Feathersalt leaving Court very early one cotton-fog morning, stepping into a pumpkin-carriage with her gossamer veils close-drawn. Braghn Moran had taken the golden flowers from his hair, since Summer’s gaze had turned upon him, and Ilara had perhaps decided absence was best.

  “I find the idea of Summer’s trust, or trusting Summer, a jest in and of itself.” Robin suddenly longed for Gallow’s voice, salted as it was with mortal speech. Keeping everything even in a conversation with a sidhe was habit, and one she’d used for so long she hadn’t realized how much she liked plainer words.

  Ilara studied her for a long moment. One of Pepperbuckle’s ears stayed pricked in the fullblood’s direction. He did not sit, just kept turning, silent and graceful as the sidhe creature he was.

  Robin gazed at the fire. Was it wood from the thorn-tangles of the Dak’r, or mortal wood hauled over a threshold for Unwinter’s guests? He must have Unseelie here, sometimes, or envoys from the dwarven clans. He had a Court of fullbloods too, boon companions that rode with him during the Sundering and Unwinter’s Harrowing. They didn’t gather in his Keep, but they obeyed his summons. And he had to have attendants, didn’t he?

  “Then you are wiser than most.” Ilara drifted to the closest chair and settled herself, her mantle spread with pretty grace as if she were sinking onto an ivory bench in one of Summer’s glades. “Do you know what Unwinter sends us forth to fetch, Ragged?”

  “A knife.”

  The fullblood smiled slightly. She was much thinner than Robin remembered, and the almost-haggardness of fine-drawn sidhe-wasting upon her had its own attractive sheen. “Oh, indeed. But not just any blade. We shall be fetching the last tooth of a wyrm so massive Danu Herself rode forth to hunt it.”

 
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