Wasteland king, p.12
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       Wasteland King, p.12

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  I thought that was a fable. Still, every fable that survived had a germ of truth at its center.

  “I should sing you the story of that battle, but then you might sing me a tale in return.” Ilara’s soft laugh mixed with the fire’s merry noise, and she slid a velvet-slippered foot from under her mantle, toward Pepperbuckle, as if to caress the hound with her toe.

  His low, thrumming growl, ears suddenly pinned back, shook dust free of overhead beams. Robin’s hands tightened on the chair-back. At Court, a beast who did not know his betters was soon taught.

  We’re not in Summer anymore. It also occurred to Robin that she could, just possibly, do any highborn fullblood she chose an injury at this point, without worrying too much about the consequences. Knowing you were probably going to die in the near future pretty much eradicated the fear of revenge.

  Funny, the thought just made her tired. “I save my songs for when they matter most, Feathersalt.”

  Ilara’s shrug was a masterpiece of nonchalance, but her irises flamed with hot gold for a moment, shading to ice-blue before the glow died away. “Then I shall be plain.”

  Stone and Throne, finally. “Please do be.”

  “First Summer carried the Fang for ages before the Sundering. Then some fell blackness sickened her, and we all ailed likewise. I was there, the night First Summer died. So was the Fatherless.”

  Robin almost started at the mention of Puck, a pinch in a sore spot. Her palms remembered the crowbar clutched in them, and the stamping time it beat as bones crunched and sidhe flesh split. She let go of the chair-back with an effort. Stone. How old is she? Robin’s shoulders ached, she forced them to relax. “A black night indeed,” she murmured, as tradition demanded.

  “Oh, yes. The handmaiden at First Summer’s side took Danu’s Jewel, and Summer was reborn. But the Fang, well. It was given to the Fatherless, and hidden away by his cunning.”

  Robin considered this, her hip pressed against the back of the chair and the hilt of Puck’s own knife digging in. It was a relief she had left Puck Goodfellow twisted past recovery on a rooftop, she decided, and yet another relief knife and its belt were hidden under the black velvet. “You helped him?”

  “No.” The soft reminiscing tone turned chill, and Ilara Feathersalt’s irises flashed again. “I was a young maiden overlooked in a corner, then. The neglected may witness much, if they know to be still and silent.”

  Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead, Robin recited to herself. Ilara probably also meant that Robin had seen her own share of secrets, being a mere Half and thus of little consequence. The insult was, again, merely reflexive, and merely for balance. Of far greater weight was the information.

  Did Ilara guess Robin had seen her leave Court not so long ago? The golden bead all but dared one to mention Braghn Moran. Often, a knight carried a lady’s favor into battle.

  Maybe a lady could do the same.

  The highborn continued. “I overheard, and I followed, and I know where the Fang is hidden.” She shifted slightly in the chair, as if uncomfortable. “I shall guide you, and even protect you, and we shall bring it to our lord Unwinter.”

  Except he wants me to take it somewhere else instead. I see. Robin nodded. Had the Feathersalt come to Unwinter with her knowledge, or had he somehow found out? “Very well, then.”

  “This only leaves the question of when to start.” The fullblood glanced at the decanter of lithori.

  You think I’d drink something you were left alone in a room with, highborn? Robin bared her teeth. It wasn’t a smile, and the expression would never have crossed her face at Court. “The sooner, the better.”

  HORNS

  23

  The bone-frilled Steward carried his proud scarecrow self into the Great Study, careful not to disturb the ice-crusted dust on either side of the narrow safe track. He was one of the very few, servant or otherwise, allowed in this dangerous sanctum, and his lord had placed paths for such visitors.

  Shelves of leatherbound spines frowned on every wall, both shelf-lumber and book-spine chased with chantment to keep the cold and damp at bay. The massive astrolabes—seven in all, each with a sharp-spined finial weeping trace amounts of red, spun lazily or furiously, depending on the corner of Unwinter the lord’s attention lingered upon. Well-oiled joints made a soft whispering, but the film-eyed drow who attended the astrolabes were nowhere in evidence. Usually, the drow who wished release from a crushing burden shuffled blindly in the study’s quiet, their pinpricked fingers twitching in time to the spinning, and every once in a while one fell upon the spines with a sigh, bones cracking softly as its body folded in like a spider flicking into a candleflame.

  Such mercy waited for any of Unwinter’s subjects who requested it.

  The Steward waited at the very edge of the safe path, his robe pulled back to avoid the dust. Under its hem, the hooves were plainly visible, gloss-varnished with a bloody tinge. Sharp edges had almost worn through the velvet pads cupping them, but the elaborate black-silk knots on its gaiters were still firm.

  High overhead, a cushion of white ice-freighted air held a tall sidhe frame clothed in simple, dusty black. Unwinter’s thistledown head, its silver circlet glinting in the harsh white snowglare from some source overhead that nevertheless escaped the eye, was bent over a large tome, held effortlessly before him though it was as long as his torso. The age-darkened cover, innocent of jewel or stamp, was the simplest to be found in any highborn’s manse. Onionskin pages rustled as Unwinter’s gloved right hand twitched a single, supple finger.

  The slender, empty space on the shelf before Unwinter yawned, bleak and black as ink. It had not been touched since the Keep was dragged from the Veil’s depths, the night of the Sundering. Only a will such as Unwinter’s could have performed such a feat, they said.

  The Steward waited. Moments ticked by, each elastic when compared to the mortal world, where they had definite beginnings and endings. Of course, even mortals know Time is subjective to a degree. Just what degree, though, is a matter of much debate.

  Unwinter continued to page idly through the book. The astrolabes spun, some furiously, others barely moving. All whispering, as they had since his pale hand had set them in motion with flicks of elegant, already-wasting fingers.

  Finally, Unwinter spoke. “Steward.”

  “My lord.” The black-robed scarecrow did not bow, but his every line expressed submission, from the bone frill to the way its thin lips kept the crimson-grimed teeth well covered. Here, his voice lacked the weight of his master’s authority.

  “Have you made much study of mortals?”

  “My… lord?” The Steward considered the question, his head twitching slightly in ways no human cervical spine could emulate. “My… dutiess… do not permit.”

  “There was a mortal king, long ago even as we reckon.” Unwinter’s finger flicked, more pages riffling as they turned. The angular script, eldritch ink flaring with light as his gaze touched the page, sent dappled reflections toward the high ceiling. “When he rode to his last battle, he burned his Keep to the ground behind him.”

  Silence held the last sentence. The astrolabes did not pause their spinning, but two slowed and another one began to revolve more quickly. It hissed a bit as it did, a slight mechanical noise, and Unwinter tilted his head.

  “Iss… that your will, my lord?” The Steward’s tongue, dead white, flicked nervously out, tasting the air, and retreated with a rasp.

  “If it was, servant, would you obey?”

  “You raissed me from the depths, and gave me vengeance.” The Steward bent slightly at the waist, leaning a fraction more toward the end of safety. “I do your bidding, and yourss alone.” It paused, and when it spoke next, the words quivered under their own weight. “You are my King.”

  For once, Unwinter did not chastise such a title uttered in his presence. Instead, he closed the book with a snap, and in the echo, a thin silver thread of sound rose, piercing the Keep from spire to foot. The Stew
ard flinched, his hooves scraping through the last threads of their cushioning. A corner of his robes swayed past the edge into the hungry space beyond, and Unwinter was suddenly there, his slim gloved fist striking the scarecrow’s midsection, knocking him back into safety, along the groove worn in the dust.

  The Steward hissed, a sound of surprise but not pain. Its neck craned again, and its breath whistled high and hard. “My lord… my lord…” Its relief was palpable.

  Unwinter stepped onto the path and halted, his ringed fingers spreading. Pale ash-sparks whirled about him. The armor came, flowing from the Veil, closing around Unwinter with soundless grace. Greaves and thighplate clamped themselves home, spurs sparking against the Veil’s drugging, dragging pull. Spiked gauntlets closed over his hands, and the breastplate made a hollow sound as it unfolded over Unwinter’s chest. More than the armor was his size, the shadow of his will peering through the appearance of an elegantly slender sidhe lord, broadening the shoulders and lifting the head. Crimson sparks lit in the depths of his pupils, and the spikes at his shoulder-armor bloomed with painful tiny noises, their tips fresh-wet with red. The cloak blossomed from them, a waterfall of crimson so deep it was almost black, exactly the shade of the last wringing of blood from an exhausted mortal heart.

  His chin lifted, and Unwinter’s great helm spread in segments, closing over his weary thistledown head. Twin bloody sparks settled in eyehole darkness, and he towered over the Steward, who lay supine, the top edge of his bone frill against the cold, unforgiving floor. It was as well that he did not have eyes, for the moment before the helm closed showed…

  In any case, the helm closed fully about Unwinter’s pale head, and the astrolabes whispered, whispered, cheated of fresh prey.

  “My faithful servant,” Unwinter said softly. “Take more care.”

  “Yess, my lord.” The Steward lay still as Unwinter passed overhead, his step light as a frostbitten leaf. The lord of Unseelie halted near the great doors, one ajar and the other creaking as it began to slide open for the first time in many a long year, sidhe or mortal.

  “After I leave…” Unwinter paused. “Burn only this room, Steward. If you so wish, you may remain in the flames, and perish at last.”

  “My lord.” The creature drew its arms up, and its legs, folding inward. “My lord, my lord, my King.”

  Without eyes, one cannot weep. Yet the thankful sobs of a creature receiving a reward for much long weary service echoed against the Great Study’s walls.

  Unwinter did not look back. Once more, the silver unsound pierced the Veil. The Sluagh was in the mortal world.

  And it had not run its prey to ground just yet.

  AN IDEA

  24

  The roof was the worst place in winter, and in summer sometimes it baked the nod right out of you. In spring, though, when the pothead gardens began to bloom—and those hippies knew how to grow everything, man—it was the best. The storms came in, but there was a special little sheltered corner Henry McDowell had found, dry even during the worst lightning-and-thunder duos. It was chilly sleeping outside, but you didn’t really feel it once the nod hit, it just made the couple of manky blankets he’d found in the Dumpster behind the Savoigh Limited seem more like…

  Well, like camping. Like when he was a kid, out at Bright Lake, Mom and Dad singing in harmony and his sister laughing like she used to. Those had been the best times. Later, everything just drifted.

  Henry was just starting a good one—you didn’t smoke it if you wanted the hit to last, and finding a vein was still easy for him—and he itched all over. Maybe that was just the blanket, though. It had to be near 4 a.m., even the sound of traffic from Camden Avenue was muted and faraway. His eyes opened on their own as he drew the needle out, the sting in his arm turning to warmth. The itching would crest in a couple minutes, and after that it would be the deep soft nothingness he lived for.

  A rattling sound scraped his ears, and he stiffened, drawing the blankets up. Nobody came up here, it was safe, so why did he hear footsteps? They were light, crunching against the dust and bits of gravel that had somehow gotten up here, and now he heard voices, too.

  “Rest. They’ll cry again soon enough.”

  “Yeah.” Breathing, harsh and light. “Braghn Moran. I know your name.”

  “And I know yours, Gallow.”

  “I ask the price for the aid you give.”

  “Very simple. Tell me, where is Puck Goodfellow? For that information I will help you as well as I may until this hunt is finished.”

  “Ah.” A heavy, rasping cough. The breathing began to even out.

  Now Henry could see them—three shadows, all tall, one of them with a weird outline, like a dress, and a glittering helmet. He made himself as small as possible, and kept still. The warmth began, spreading up his arm. When it hit, none of this would matter.

  “The Fatherless is dead.” There was a green gleam—looked like eyes.

  Wow. Seriously weird. Or maybe he was nodding already? He had to be. His chin drifted down, jerked back up. He’d never heard voices in the nod before.

  “This is… heavy news, indeed. You are certain?”

  “Very. If you don’t believe me, ask Unwinter. He was there.”

  “Ah.” A long pause. “His head? Was it taken?”

  “There wasn’t anything of it left to take. The Savoigh downtown is where it… happened, you can go and see for yourself.”

  Henry twitched. Well, of course the voices would talk about the Savoigh. He’d just been there, rooting around in the dumpsters for anything good.

  “This is distressing news indeed.”

  “Only if you’re looking to avenge him, Moran.”

  A third voice broke in, not sharp but a little impatient nonetheless. “Save your breath for running. It’s a long time until dawn.”

  “You do realize a Half cannot hope to escape the Sluagh.”

  “We’ll see.”

  Henry’s chin dipped again. It was spreading all through him, the nothingness, and he was glad. If he was going to start seeing things every time he shot up, though…

  “When they take you down…” The third voice trailed off. “There is someone who should know.”

  “Then you’ll tell her.”

  “I will.”

  “Come. We must away. Two Halves, and knight—they shall sing songs of this, indeed.”

  A weird chill passed through Henry McDowell. Ice-spikes jabbed at his ears, fighting with the glorious abyss he’d injected himself with. He closed his eyes, trying not to whimper, and maybe he succeeded, for his chin fell again and he was gone. The three shadows vanished with a rattle and a soft sigh, and a little later, fog crept across the roof in thin tendrils, almost-caressing the drugged mortal’s knees. He wasn’t awake enough to feel the chill.

  When he woke at midmorning, shadows, voices, and fog were all mostly forgotten. Instead, he had only one thought.

  Got to get another score.

  Two years later, when he overdosed in Amberline Park, he saw little spots of gem-bright light zipping among the treetops… but he was dead before the chiming, clamouring pixies, drawn to his curious exhalations and the scent of opiate torpor, crawled over his hands and face.

  Then, dissatisfied, they winked out.

  AIR AND DREAM

  25

  Crenn leapt lightly, reached down, and grasped Jeremiah’s hand in both of his. A heave, a slight sound of effort, the rustle of lightfoot chantment, and Gallow flew, landing with a whisper across the alley and a story up, the fire escape rattling a little. Crenn followed, having to bounce from the brick wall a couple times. Next time they climbed, it would be Gallow’s turn to fling him, both of them conserving energy and moving more quickly than they could separately. Braghn Moran disdained their methods, flickering in and out of the Veil—but never too far, ahead or behind, lest the disturbance bring the Sluagh right next to them.

  It bothered Crenn. It bothered him a lot. The last time he’d seen Mora
n, the fullblood had been Summer’s favorite, dragging a changeling toward the flint knife on the very day a white bird had summoned Crenn from Marrowdowne.

  They paused on another rooftop to catch their breath. Gallow looked none the worse for wear. It was less likely that the beardless bastard Findergast had given Jer a hell of an antidote; far more likely, then, that Unwinter had removed his poison.

  Unwinter was there, Jer had said. It would be just like Gallow to get in a lucky shot and kill the Fatherless. Puck was a canny opponent, but once Gallow started waving that goddamn pigsticker around, someone always got hurt.

  “So,” Crenn said, his hand on Jer’s shoulder. The leather armor underneath his palm was supple, chain-stiffened, and chased with subtle, effective chantment. Not like Moran, whose cloak couldn’t disguise the lines of Seelie plate beneath. It was a wonder the knight didn’t clank when he moved, but sidhe-armor was whisper-soft, when the wearer wished it to be. “Puck, dead?”

  “Yeah.” A faint misting of sweat on Jer’s forehead. He was pale, under his mortal tan. “Then Unwinter… well.”

  “He let you…”

  “He’s got a use for me.”

  “Does he, now.”

  “So he said.” Jer glanced at Moran, who had paced across the roof, scouting the next part of their route. He could no doubt hear them. “What about that?”

  Crenn sighed. “Summer.” The word made Jer’s expression flick between disgust and grudging acceptance; Crenn didn’t want to guess which was meant for him. “I’ll tell you again. I am here to help.”

  “With that cute new face of yours, sure.” Gallow’s fingers tensed, as if he felt the lance beginning to take form in their grip. “Why would you help me, Alastair?”

  Because there’s a redheaded girl, and because… He settled for something Gallow might conceivably believe. “Nobody kills you but me, Gallow.”

 
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