Wasteland king, p.22
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       Wasteland King, p.22

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  A great hush swept through the Veil, those small ripples touching each other, and did the fingertip dip again, ever so gently, just the faintest breath of a nudge?

  Sooner or later, all children grow. Control is not possible.

  But encouragement and aid, well… those are always possible.

  Did Danu Herself smile as she regarded them, these children fighting over dropped toys, now clinging to each other and weeping? Tears of relief, or tears of pain, a green gleam on the chest of a knight…

  Did Danu pause? Did she breathe across the surface of the fountain, as her garden shimmered half-wild in the folds of the Veil, a tamed wilderness echoed in light and shadow all through the real and more-than-real?

  Or is she merely a fiction, and the slices of real and more-than-real, stacked in a glorious fan, nothing more than the sum of choice, of consequence?

  What is known is merely this: Danu’s Jewel…

  … had found a new bearer.

  Summer was alive.

  LAST OWED

  51

  When he regained consciousness, he was surprised it didn’t hurt.

  The first thing he saw was a white streak floating in dimness. The sidhe bending over him was attenuated from some illness, his cheeks thin and his long nose wrinkled slightly. For all that, he looked very familiar.

  Alastair Crenn stared with blurring eyes, testing his fingers and toes. They appeared to be all there. A thin, iron-strong arm slid under his shoulders, and he was lifted. The horn at his mouth held lithori, an expensive squeezing of evergrape and chantment, a fiery clarity sliding down his throat and detonating in his stomach.

  The streak in his hair was even more pronounced now, and Jeremiah Gallow’s bleached irises glowed slightly. He laid Crenn back against soft, snow-white pillows, and through a casement came a fragrant breeze redolent of blossom and cut grass.

  Lithori was a restorative. After a little while, Crenn found his left hand patting at his belt, and Gallow smiled.

  “Relax.” Even his voice was slightly changed. Deeper, more resonant. “We took your swords off so you could rest. You have new boots, too.”

  Crenn’s lips wanted to shape the word where, but that was stupid. He settled for the only other question.

  “Robin?” he croaked. His throat was dry. Gallow propped him up, steadied his hand around the horn of lithori before answering.

  “I asked her to stay.” The former Armormaster settled into a chair at the bedside. The room was close and cosy, an applewood fire burning fragrant and bright, but not overheating. The cool breeze from the window came again, touching Crenn’s hands and face.

  Persistent unease sharpened into a realization.

  Gallow didn’t smell right. The smoke-tang of iron clinging to mortal blood didn’t exude from him nearly as strongly.

  “I said Summer needs a lady.” Gallow’s broad shoulders hunched, and he picked up something dark and curved from the chair’s arm. “She said I’d no doubt find many applicants for the position.”

  The wince made sense. Crenn’s hands steadied. The evergrape was working wonders. Plus, if he was any judge, he was in Summer. But that didn’t smell right, either.

  “Ouch,” Crenn said finally, and could almost feel the ruefulness spread over his own expression. Nice to know he wasn’t the only one rejected. “So… um…”

  A slight easing crossed Gallow’s face. “I think she’s north, at the edge of Marrowdowne.” Gallow frowned, turning the curved shape over in his hands. “But things are… difficult. The merger is underway.”

  Crenn decided he could sit up without the pillows. He did so, cautiously testing every limb. The lithori burned, and the sharp rich colors around him told him he wasn’t anywhere near the mortal realm.

  But if it wasn’t Summer, then where?

  “Take it very slowly, Jer.” He had to clear his throat twice. “But not too slowly, because after I can stand, and thank you for the boots, I’m going after Robin.”

  “I thought as much.” Jeremiah nodded. “Crenn…” He dropped the curved thing in his lap and unbuttoned his fine linen shirt, Hob’s End weaving by the look of it. A green glow spread up his chest. “Robin. I think she… I don’t know. She cured Unwinter, too. He’s in his Keep, but I sometimes see him in the halls, here. And he sees me. The Sluagh began it, tipping me away from Half.” The tattoos moved sluggishly, cradling the Jewel. Its light ribboned through them, a thin thread at the center of every inked line. Somehow, Danu’s mark of favor wasn’t repelled by the iron in the tats, or by mortal blood. “The Sundering is healing. Summer and Unwinter are merging. It’s starting at the Keep and the Home, and spreading out.”

  Crenn’s throat was dry. He set the rhyton carefully on the small inlaid table crouching near the bedside as well. How long had Jeremiah been sitting there, waiting for him to wake up? “And when it’s done?”

  Jeremiah shrugged. “Then he can have the Jewel and welcome. If I can find a way to get rid of it without dying.”

  “That, um, could be a problem.”

  Gallow smiled. It was a flicker of his old self, and it faded almost as soon as Crenn witnessed it. “Which is why I want you to promise me something.”

  “Do I have to?” Crenn winced, swinging his legs out of the bed. The new boots were there, as promised—brown hobleafs, light and supple, matching Crenn’s leathers perfectly. It occurred to him that sarcasm might not be the best avenue. If Jer was growing—or being pulled—away from his mortal side, it could be distinctly unhealthy.

  “Don’t worry, you’ll like it.” Gallow stood, crossed to the window casement. His back was rigid, and for a moment Crenn’s eyelids twitched. It was like seeing a photo develop on a plate in a bath of shimmering chemicals, a ghost-image.

  Spiked armor, broad shoulders, and a shock of white thistledown hair. A soft chill spread through the room, the crispness of an autumn night.

  He busied himself with bending to twitch his chantment-cleaned socks and enclose his feet in the hobleafs. Their chantments woke, humming slightly, and he almost didn’t hear what Gallow would ask of him, for the new King said it as if he had a rock in his throat, as if it pained him.

  Crenn straightened. He stared at Jeremiah’s back. He said nothing.

  “Please, Al.” The fading shadow of his old friend—his oldest friend, his only friend, even though Crenn hated him—spoke through an almost-sidhe’s throat. “I would rather it be… a friend.”

  Goddamn it. You selfish bastard.

  The very same selfish bastard had leapt in front of the ravening undead for him. Maybe Gallow hated him, too.

  Maybe mortal hate was close to love. Who knew?

  The curved thing in the chair was a shard of mortal glass, its crusted edge wrapped with a few thin gold-red hairs. It shimmered, just as the glitter-knife of Unwinter’s had, and Crenn’s gorge rose.

  A glass knife for Unwinter, and one for Summer. Was Jer hoping he’d take it?

  “Yes,” he said finally. Harshly, through the obstruction in his throat. “I swear it to you, I will.”

  Jeremiah nodded, a brisk movement. “I shall hold you to your promise, Alastair Crenn. Should you have need of me, just say my name.”

  Which one? Crenn was going to ask, before it occurred to him that he was probably the only person who would know it. But maybe Robin did too.

  The knowledge throbbed in the Old Language, under his skin and bone and breath. Knowing Summer’s truename was dangerous.

  Crenn did not make a similar promise, though he wanted to. Instead, he stood and moved for the wooden door, deliberately stepping mortal-heavy, making noise. So Jer, or whatever was left of him, would know where Alastair Crenn’s loyalties lay.

  He stopped, his hand on the doorknob. “Jer?”

  “Al.” It was a cool tone, almost but not quite a fullblood’s mockery.

  “I know you didn’t… you weren’t with her that night. The schoolteacher.” I can’t even remember her name now. Silence. Crenn paid o
ut the last of what he owed to the mortal Jeremiah, save the one promise he suspected he’d have to fulfill sooner or later. And wouldn’t Ragged Robin hate him then, too? A man couldn’t win. “I always knew.”

  The bitterness filled his mouth. Was it a lie?

  That was the trouble with Half. You could never be sure.

  Crenn closed the door softly, leaving the new Summer to his own thoughts, and hurried away. He had left the glass shard in the chair by the bedside.

  He had to find a door.

  EVER AND ALWAYS

  52

  The Keep shimmered, its wet black stone gleaming under a different light though a pall of smoke hung above one of its towers. The library was gutted, but the astrolabes still spun, slowing and tarnishing by imperceptible degrees. The roads in Unwinter’s realm were still milky quartz, but brighter now, and on the Ash Plains the scarlet flax now held a blush of green on the undersides of its pale leaves. That Dak’r was just as tangled, the mountains just as sharp… but the light of every fire and forge was richer now, with a tinge of gold to its ruddiness. The constant rain of pale cinders had turned to soft spatters of feathery snow.

  Robin’s eyes were grainy. The cream slid down her throat in long swallows, and Unwinter watched the movement. When she finished, wiping at her mouth with her fingers, the soothing spread all through her.

  Everywhere but her heart.

  Pepperbuckle sat next to her chair. Harne of Unwinter rested his long pale hands on the other side of the small table, and if Robin stretched her leg out, she could tap his knee with her toe.

  Not that she would dare, but still.

  She licked her lips. Unwinter watched, the pinpricks of crimson in his pupils flashing once, dimming slightly.

  They regarded each other. The fire crackled, and a cold wind touched the shutters—but it was not as frigid as it had been. Unwinter’s thistledown hair had darkened, almost gray instead of parchment-pale.

  Finally, Robin scraped up the last of her courage. “I didn’t kill Summer.”

  The Lord of Unwinter shrugged. “I did not expect you to.” The words were chill, but not hurtful. His tone had lost none of its edge, or its power.

  It had merely… changed.

  “Still, I promised,” Robin persisted.

  “You promised only to free the Jewel.” Unwinter indicated the window with a brief, expressive motion. “I see him in my halls, Ragged. As he no doubt glimpses me in his. The Sundering is done.”

  Robin’s gaze dropped to the table. She studied the flagon of cream.

  “Do you wish for more?”

  She shook her head, her earrings swinging slightly. Her hair was growing out quickly, remembering its former length. Her bare shoulders didn’t steam in the chill. The black velvet coat-cloak probably still lay where it had landed during the battle. “No, my lord Unwinter.”

  Unwinter’s pale, graceful fingers flicked. A golden gleam spun, depending from a fine chain—her locket.

  Daisy had worn its twin. She was probably buried with it.

  Robin’s eyes prickled. She denied the tears, breathing steadily. Four in, four out.

  Unwinter raised his other hand. Chantment flashed, and metal made a thin singing noise of stress and freezing. A bloody gleam filled the shadows with slumbrous crimson for a brief moment, and Unwinter offered the locket across the table.

  Now, a red gem was set in the locket’s lid. “Should you have need of any aid,” he said, almost kindly, “simply touch, and I will answer.”

  It wouldn’t be politic to refuse, no matter how useful she’d been. So she took it, her fingers brushing Unwinter’s chilly flesh for a bare moment. His eyelids dropped halfway, and for a moment, his face blurred slightly, a different—and familiar—man’s features showing.

  That was all.

  The chain was cold, but warmed immediately. The clasp recognized her, and when the locket settled just under the notch at the top of her breastbone her chest hurt again, a swift lancing pain she ignored.

  She stood, her chair scraping back along the stone floor. Was she simply too weary to feel terrified of Unwinter? Perhaps. “You are gracious, my lord.”

  “And you are careful. Your sire is dead, Robin Ragged, and the pixies recognize you.”

  It gave her a chill to think Puck had survived the crowbar and Robin’s song. It gave her a double chill to think she hadn’t known, and he had been stalking her afresh until Gallow struck him down. Now even Unwinter acknowledged the Fatherless was dead.

  It wasn’t as comforting as it could have been. Really, nothing ever was.

  “Yes.” She gazed into those blood-pricked eyes, steadily.

  “Do you return to Summer now?”

  Robin shook her head. Touched the locket, careful to avoid the gem. “No, my lord. Summer is not for me.”

  “Gallow would have it otherwise.”

  “Perhaps he would.” Robin put her left foot behind and curtsied, as prettily as she ever had to False Summer. “I bid you farewell, Lord of Unwinter.”

  “I will see you again, little bird. Soon Summer and Unwinter will be one, and you will come home.”

  She could have told him there was no home for a Half, but in the end, she simply turned and took the first few unsteady steps into her future. Pepperbuckle lunged to his feet and shook his fine coat, padding after her, his nails clicking on stone. She reached the heavy black wooden door without further incident, but as it opened Unwinter spoke again.

  “Robin Ragged, I would ask something of you.”

  Her throat was dry. “My lord.”

  “I would have someone remember me.” Harshness melted out of his tone. “When the Sundering is also a memory, and all are merry in green fields or winter’s snow.”

  “Yes, my lord.” She swallowed, hard. I can do that. “I will. Ever, and always.”

  Both of you.

  The door closed softly. Some of the halls looked queerly familiar, overlapping in her memory with the familiar corridors of Summerhome. She turned left, then right, feeling her way, and paused.

  At the end of a long hallway, a green gleam. The shape was ghostly—broad shoulders, a flash of white in dark hair, a startled motion as if he had turned, expecting her footstep.

  Robin, Jeremiah Gallow had said. Please.

  The Ragged turned, walked quickly in the opposite direction. There was no bone-frilled Steward to guide her, but instinct, and Pepperbuckle, led her to the front gates. The moat was smooth as glass, the Watcher quiescent in its depths. Robin Ragged walked with her chin up and her shoulders straight, a single shimmering diamond dewdrop on her right cheek.

  It was gone before she found a small overgrown door set into a thorny hillside. Traceries of green ran on the undersides of the bramble-vines, strengthening as Unwinter slid closer and closer to Summer. The more-than-real would be whole again. There would be no need for the flint knife or the bloodied doorway; the Tiend would take other forms. Stone and Throne would be one.

  She spread her fingers against the door, glancing over her shoulder. The Keep loomed black and sharp, smoke fraying above. Just before she blinked, it turned white, and a soft appleblossom breeze touched her cheek.

  When she opened her eyes again, the flash was gone. The door opened reluctantly, but Robin pushed, and finally she stepped through, vanishing from the more-than-real in a flicker of russet, cream, and gold.

  And one crimson spark.

  LAST OF THE WILD BOYS

  53

  The child hunched against a concrete wall, shivering. This wasn’t like other fights, kids throwing stones and yelling, not like the nightmare of the trailer or apartment or even the tract house, crouching while adults screamed and things crashed against the wall. It still echoed all around her, everything topsy-turvy, the malice settling in her bones and making her ache, ache, ache. Her broken arm, and the time that man sprained her ankle, and other hurts, all come back to say hello.

  Where were the other kids? Where was Tomtom? He was nice, and
he took her seriously. His dirty face lived in her heart all the time, a soft sweet stinging, and she had run for the storehouse without stopping, Rom behind her and her head ringing with the importance of the mission.

  Then, the redheaded lady, and the things made of mist, and the scratching of the blackberry vines and poor Rom’s screams…

  Brat cowered in the frost-covered bushes all that night, even after sanity came back and the noises and shaking faded away. Near dawn, cold and bladder-full, she crept out of her little hidey-hole and into a listing, icy trailer to pee. Her cup was back at the squat, and she didn’t want to trust any of the trash around here near her privates. Boys had it so easy, and she had decided, way back when she was plain old Eleanor Gunderson, that she wanted to be like them, thinking maybe the easy would rub off.

  It never did.

  Her chest felt funny. The frost wasn’t bothering her as much. It was like she had a little heater starting up inside her, and it smelled like the redheaded woman’s breath. Brat crept outside again, taking shelter next to the trailer’s listing, rotted porch. She could see anything sneaking around from here, and maybe plan out how to get back to the squat.

  Morning strengthened, and Brat moved every once in a while, flitting from cover to cover like a tiny soldier, her red bandanna bobbing.

  Around noon she found Tomtom’s body. He lay on his back, his arms spread wide and his lips turned blue, and something had pecked at his eyes. He stared at the sky with the ragged red holes, and Brat stood, hugging herself. She nudged him once or twice with her foot, ready for him to hop upright and say Did I scareya, Brat? and laugh in his whistling way. He was the leader, the bravest and the best, and the craziness had killed him.

  That’s what it was. Seeing things with wings and hooves and human faces and flittering tiny people and giants, actual giants, was crazy.

 
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