Wasteland king, p.13
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       Wasteland King, p.13

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  “Touching,” Bragn Moran said from the roof-edge, a soft cutting word. His hair moved oddly, even for a sidhe’s. “It is too quiet. We must move.”

  “If the Fatherless is dead, why should a Summer knight promise us aid?” Crenn addressed the air over Moran’s dark head.

  “A Summer knight promised an Armormaster his aid.” The correction was addressed to the air over Crenn’s own head, impoliteness balanced against impoliteness. “And his reasons are his own.”

  “The Queen of Seelie has a favorite.” Crenn’s hands itched for the twin hilts over his shoulders. He’d feel a lot better about this if he was back in Marrowdowne with the knight in his sights and an arrow to the ready. “A dark-haired lord who fetches her meals.”

  “A knight may wear a chain not of Summer’s making.” The knight did not move, staring over a slice of tall tenements reeking of poverty. “A Half should not concern himself with his betters so.”

  His lady left Court, didn’t she? I remember hearing something about that. Crenn found himself glancing at Gallow again. Just like old times, seeing if the other man believed the line of twaddle they were being given.

  Gallow’s chin lifted slightly. His irises flashed green, precisely once. Cool spring wind riffled uneasily across concrete canyons, stars of mortal light in every window. It used to be candles—in the orphanage, the hissing of gaslamps had followed dreary dusk. The first light bulb he’d seen… Gallow had been there, too.

  They had both thought it was magic, before they knew anything of the sidhe.

  It was almost a relief when Jeremiah glanced at him, one dark eyebrow lifted a fraction. No, Gallow didn’t believe this story, but he wasn’t going to challenge it. Just like they wouldn’t challenge a fellow hobo with the glint or glare of volatile madness on him. Days spent on the lookout for a scrap of food or tobacco, nights spent sleeping in shifts, because young meant vulnerable to the stiffened, angry fellow travelers. You could lose a lot, skidding the freight.

  Gallow regarded him steadily, and Crenn did not look away. Perhaps so long spent in the swamps, where he didn’t have to keep his face neutral or care who saw his grimaces, had made him easier to read.

  Or maybe Jeremiah was feeling the bite of Memory tonight too. That particular bitch had sharp teeth, and Crenn could never decide if the sidhe had too much of it, or not enough, or maybe just the wrong kind. Never forgot a grudge, and if they sometimes repaid a kindness with misuse it was their right, as Children of Danu, first upon the green earth and blessed with beauty and viciousness mortals could barely dream of, and long, long lives to boot.

  Except the evanescent pixies. Whether they were a symptom or just the Veil taking brief chattering life, Crenn couldn’t decide either. He’d watched their dances over Marrowdowne’s sinks, the same flickers and glimmers that would lead a mortal astray, shaping swamp gas into globes and spirals and firing it with their own burning chantment. If they were immortal, winking out in one place to be born again in another, or if they were simply so brief and delicate frost or sharp edges killed their tiny humming bodies, nobody could tell.

  If you watched them for long enough, you might see a mad sort of sense in their patterns.

  Just like mortals.


  He’d only heard Jeremiah Gallow sound this serious once. A very long time ago, when the other boy slipped through the dormitory and stood at his bedside, whispering, I know a way to get out. Wanna come along?

  “Jeremiah.” It was his own voice, from long years ago, both mortal and sidhe. Okay, he’d said that night, and the whole world opened up.

  “Did you harm Robin?”

  He shook his head. “I would not harm her, Jeremiah Gallow. Ever.” Not now.

  “You delivered her to Summer.” It wasn’t a question.

  “And I foxed an entire Unseelie raid to buy her time to flee, afterward.” Crenn shook his head. No use in explaining, even if Jer would believe him. “He’s right. We’d best get going.”

  “I shall write a song about this,” Braghn Moran commented, brightly. “Three Halves and the curst plague. We have much larger concerns than the Ragged, sirrahs.”

  “A knight serving two ladies,” Gallow replied. “That’s a pretty song, too. No doubt the Ragged could sing you a fine one, were she so inclined.”

  For a moment Crenn thought Jer had gone mad. Almost-insulting a highborn was one thing.

  Outright threatening one, even with the name of a Half girl, was another.

  Miraculously, the knight didn’t take offense. “I have heard that little bird sing, Armormaster; the spectacle did not move me. Her mortal half must have been exquisite, though. A brief blossoming, soon over, but Puck Goodfellow brought the result to Summer. Now she is flown, Summer and half the sidhe dying, Puck Goodfellow vanished and Summer seeking him, and Unwinter breaching borders that have stood since the Sundering.” Braghn Moran turned from his vista and took two steps, his loose graceful hands well away from the greatsword hilt at his side, the sunny jewel trapped in its end giving one colorless gleam. “I have many thoughts on the most ragged of robins ever to perch upon Summer’s finger, and you should as well.”

  Crenn’s throat had turned dry and slick. The iron hoop in his ear warmed, a comforting heat. “Say a word against that lady, Braghn Moran, and it will be your last.”

  “I? I say nothing, I merely express thoughts. Children of air and dream, no ken to balance their kenning.” Braghn Moran shook his head slightly, and the chiming was from his hair, some kind of metal in it shifting and sliding with dull, angry, wet gleams.

  A high chilling silver note bounced up from the well of the city, spread. The balance of night had tipped imperceptibly toward dawn, and the Sluagh felt it. They could not pursue in broad daylight, but they could still watch, and when night fell, unless their prey had kept moving, the knot would be tied about it.

  Even the mortal sun brought no rest to those hunted by the ravening dead. More than once their prey had fallen, heart and lungs both giving out from sheer exhaustion, and risen in steam-veils as the vicious host took temporary clinging life to worry at the vacated corpse with their smoke-pearl teeth.

  A shiver raced down Crenn’s back. By all rights he should leave Gallow to it, and track Robin to wherever she had wandered.

  Instead, he clapped Jeremiah on the shoulder. Not too hard, but not too softly either. “Time to move, old man.” He bared his teeth, Gallow smiled back, and for that moment, the past was the present again, an endless loop.



  The lights came that evening. Jadek Kosminksi’s grandmother had known what to call them.

  Here in the new country, though, he was American, and his mothertongue had fallen away like dried mud during the difficult years after he left. The black coats and secret voices did not follow him, because now he was in this brand-new country where they were soft and placid and shiny, even their faces. His cousin got him the holy American visa, and his other name, his old name, was left in the chalky mud and the wide-open fields with snow clinging to their edges, and the graves they made you dig out on the steppe before you got a tap to the back of the head, just one, and in you fell.

  Jadek didn’t think about that. Now he was Jimmy Kamens, apple pie and cheddar cheese, and he drank the milk-weak vodka they had here only in secret. He had a good job, a steady job, and he had lasted at it far longer than anyone else they had hired.

  Nights in the gate-hut attached to the wall—brick for the first six feet high, then chainlink and razorwire, just like the black holes in the old country where people vanished—were peaceful. Sometimes some teenage kids tried to scale the wall in search of kicks, sometimes a tourist got lost, and occasionally the cops called ahead, bringing in a live one.

  Although even the cops didn’t like to visit Creslough at night. They thought maybe the crazy was catching. During lockdown Jadek would patrol the front segment of the wall, from one corner to the other, and no furthe
r. A crumbling concrete path ran along the front, but the side and back walls pressed against a thicket of spiny bushes, firs with their bottom branches lopped to discourage climbing, and swampy muck that could grab a shoe if you weren’t careful. Even in the height of summer the water seeped up from God-knew-where, exhaling dampness and a nose-numbing collection of rotting halitosis. Some deep parts of it probably stayed green even during winter, but Jadek could only suspect as much. Going into that mess was a bad idea, and he’d had enough of bad ideas to last a lifetime.

  On a night like tonight, with a raw spring breeze rustling in budding branches, he should have felt just fine, especially with a slug of vodka in his strong black tea. He rationed it carefully—one shot per night, just after his midshift break. They called it lunch, as if he did anything but sit in the gate-hut and eat his two peanut-butter-and-Vidalia-onion sandwiches. Anything else in the middle of the night gave him heartburn, just like Uncle Vladek, who had disappeared when Jadek was eight, the year before the crossing.

  Baba Jala had been shot during the crossing, and every time Jadek thought about that, his left calf twitched. There was still a sliver of bullet buried in the muscle mass, not worth digging out now.

  The breeze fell off, though, and fog crept in, thick and cold. It smelled of salt, and rotting vegetables. Jadek—

  No. It’s Jimmy now.

  Jimmy Kamens opened the window a crack and sniffed, cautiously. Something familiar, teasing at the edges of memory. Was it iron? No, another metal. Something else.

  He took another slug of vodka tea and nodded. Yes, tonight he would stay in the gatehouse, even if the cops rolled up. You were supposed to get out and check their ID, but that smell made him uneasy, made his neck tight and ticklish, just like lying facedown in the frozen, snow-crusted mud, the cold burning against his child-round cheeks, and hearing the footsteps. Booted feet stamping, and the sound of metal clinking, and the jokes they made as Baba Jala’s body flopped against the hard-packed snow.

  She’d been caught crossing the road, and they probably knew there were more hiding in the bushes, but it was too cold to go hunting outside their nice warm towers. So it was only the white glare of spotlight and the chatter of machine-gun, the pockpockpock of the bullets hitting the road, Jadek’s calf stinging and his mother’s breath whisper-sobbing next to him as she watched her mother’s body, shapeless under layers of coat and cloth, contort.

  When he was older, Ja—Jimmy realized electricity had been intermittent in the city, but the searchlights at the borders never went out. He never shared that observation with any cousin. They didn’t want to hear about the old country, or about an old woman facedown in the ice-sharp mud.

  That was fine. Except the fucking fog smelled just like that night, right down to the breath of green from the pines. Sometimes, in winter, they exhaled from one horizon to the next, and the wind carried that cold, verdant sigh even further.

  Fog all but boiled down the road. Jimmy checked the door. Locked, old-fashioned bolt pushed over all the way and the deadbolt thrown too.

  When he looked out the window again, the breath slammed out of him in an onion-and-peanut huff.

  Tiny lights flickered through the condensation—blue, then green shading up into gold, zipping in tiny circles, coalescing into almost-patterns. A wave of blue went through them again, a somehow benign deep jewel-tone. The fog moved, following the tiny lights, thickening and thinning across the road like streams of sour cream dropped into borscht. Almost as if the lights were… coaxing it. Directing it.

  Don’t look, Jadi. You’ll make them angry. Baba’s voice, from behind the locked door of the old country. Don’t look, but don’t ignore.

  The crazy was probably infectious. Maybe it leaked out of Creslough Asylum like radiation from nuclear plants. Invisible, deadly, you had no idea, then pow! Too late, and you were seeing lights in fog and hearing your dead grandmother’s cautions, and smelling her borscht, a warm good smell mixing with snow, and ice, and mud, and the sudden reek of shit when an old woman’s bowels gave way, and—

  Jadek decided it would be best to look into the tea mug, a big, blue cappucino-bowl with a half-broken handle. He knew it was chipped, but he hadn’t studied it before. Not closely. The exact contours of the chip, the white ceramic underneath no longer pristine but grimed with dirt and skin-oil, its jagged edges, the way the glaze had flaked outward from it. There were spiderweb-cracks throughout the glaze, too, and he studied those. The steam drifting from the shimmering black surface didn’t thicken, didn’t coalesce.

  It went by in a rush and a clatter, a soft female laugh that made Jadek’s hard, sagging paunch quiver a little in time with his chin and a skittering against the gatehouse’s windows. Thousands of tiny fingernails tapping, drumming, and a chill ringing tone like a wineglass stroked with a damp finger. It stroked the inside of his skull, too, that ringing, and the smell became the fragrant warmth of Baba Jala’s hugs, with the sour tinge of old-woman smell a child could know as safety.

  You shouldn’t have brought an old woman, the man with the rotting teeth at the crossing had sneered at them. They’re onto us now.

  No. That was a closed door, one he never opened. He was Jimmy Kamens, and he stood guard at Creslough, though most days he drove home in his old yellow sedan and wondered which side of the wall the crazy was really on.

  The ringing faded. Jimmy’s heart thundered in his chest. The tea had cooled, but he took it all down at once anyway, and by the time he finished the long deep swallows and gasped for breath, he could explain the fog and the lights. Something scientific, electricity in the air, water condensing, just weather. Strange weather, in this damp little pocket of an American city. There was no history here from the old country, and the things Baba whispered about when she tucked him into bed and could be persuaded to tell a story could not cross the ocean and find him.

  Nothing could.

  He repeated it until he believed it, and found he was wet with sweat. He managed to raise his bullish, balding head, peeking through the window.

  No fog. No lights. Just the turnoff from Spindler Road and the hum of faroff traffic, the vacant lots on either side strewn with trash visible in the harsh yellow streetlamp glow, and the distant stars of the city casting up an orange stain into the night sky.

  “Nothing,” he told himself. “It’s nothing.”

  Then he realized he’d spoken in the harsh consonants and throatcut vowels of his mothertongue instead of good solid English, and he bit the inside of his cheek so savagely it bled. Tea, vodka, and copper slick-coated his throat, and he just managed to get the door open before heaving out onto the pavement, a steaming mess of Wonder bread, blood, onion, and peanut paste. He slammed the door and locked it again, and he did not see the little spatters of light as the pixies, briefly interested, swarmed the alcohol-fuming vomit. Some turned curiously toward the door, but the steel plate at its foot burned their tiny fingers and they retreated, chiming.

  They were gone by the time the undigested puddle turned cold.



  Sliding through the Veil in a fullblood’s wake was a good way to turn your stomach inside out, even if you were Half. The few times Robin had been allowed to trail Summer’s passage through the layers of real and more-than-real, the nausea had turned her pale and shaking.

  This time, with her arm over Pepperbuckle’s shoulders, it wasn’t bad at all. Something about his steady warmth soothed the cramping, and if she shut her eyes she didn’t see the blurring of several places and unplaces at once that could drive a mortal without a half share of sidhe blood into catatonia. Ilara Feathersalt laughed once, a cruel tinkling sound sending a shiver through both Robin and the hound, and it was probably because she’d done some mischief, appearing casually to a disbelieving mortal or spreading ill luck along the edges of her wake.

  Motion stopped with a jolt, and Robin’s eyes snapped open. She leaned against Pepperbuckle, his warm vitality tickling her hand,
his fur soft even through the velvet coat-cloak. Mortal darkness pressed against them both, deep in the shade of a clump of ragged bushes at the foot of a wide field, greening rapidly after a winter’s sleep. At the other end, a large building rose, golden light winking through some of its windows.

  Robin took stock. The Feathersalt stood tall and slim, her face and hands glowing faintly. Her platinum hair rippled in smooth waves, but the ends knotted into elflocks and that one chantment-blasted gold bead shivered uneasily. Robin blinked, peering at the fullblood; the glamour rippled, sensing her attention.

  “Do not gawk at your betters, Half.” The words were cool and haughty, and the Feathersalt’s chin raised. “There.” She pointed, a graceful lifting of one silken-clad arm. “The knife is there, and you will go in to fetch it.”

  “I will?” Robin examined the building. Brick or stone, a wide roof, and something that spread chills down her back.

  “Mortal blood means less danger for you.”

  That would be a first. “And you’re going to simply stand here while I do so?”

  The fullblood shook her head slightly. “No. I—and your hound, there—shall be leading the guardians left here a merry chase.”

  “Guardians.” Of course it couldn’t be easy.

  “Did you think Summer—or Goodfellow—would leave such a prize undefended?” Ilara cocked her pale head. She gestured, the blue-velvet mantle shrinking on her frame, the sleeves melting and the skirt pulling itself free of the ground. Dainty pale-blue leaf-shoes curled around her feet, deceptively thin and probably loaded with lightfoot and other chantment. She shook her gloved hands, five fingers and a thumb loose and elegant, chantment beginning to spark between their tips.

  Pepperbuckle’s ears pricked, and his eyes fired blue in the gloom. His ovoid pupils flared, tiny blue sparks in their very center, and he looked back at Robin, craning his flexible neck.

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