Wasteland king, p.4
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       Wasteland King, p.4

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  That last one, he felt, was enough.



  Asere dust-choked afternoon found Robin holding Pepperbuckle’s ruff, leaning against the sidhe dog’s warmth and eyeing a patch of improbable green. Tiny winking gems of light coruscated around her, the damn pixies chiming nonsense and borrowed words from every language, both sidhe and mortal, as they fluttered. They darted close and away, their little mouths round O’s of excitement as they hit the edge of her personal space, their daybleached globes of foxfire turning dark blue before they zoomed away again, laughing their tiny mad chuckles, as if her presence both dyed and tickled them.

  Seen from above, the greenery was no more than a small divot in an endless sea of heatshimmer sand. It would glitter, a moment of emerald fire, before the eye found something else about the immensity of dun dust, rock, and greengray sage to fasten on instead. A mortal would forget it, or think it a hallucination, a mirage oasis, or possibly a stand of something spiny around thick sulphurous water.

  It was, in fact, an oak tree. Sandy wilderness cradled it, the Veil curdling in thick folds around its thick trunk, and the fingers of its curve-bordered leaves caressed the oven-dry breeze. Its branches sheltered a pool of greenery, light and dark moving in mellifluous leafshade, and its bark had a thick, smooth reddish cast, as if the tree had been poured instead of grown.

  A heartsblood oak, a nail piercing the real and more-than-real, crouched in the desert, and Pepperbuckle had led Robin straight to it. It was as they approached, Robin’s heels almost sinking in deep sand despite the chantments on them and her velvet coat-cloak flapping, that the pixies appeared, crowding thick as clotted cream. They showed up wherever the Veil was rent or curdled, tiny crowding things with gossamer wings and needle-sharp teeth. She was too weary to try to dispel them, and who would understand that they’d seen her if they went carrying tales? Nobody listened to pixies, and their language changed from one wingbeat to the next.

  The giant redgold dog heaved a sigh as he stepped into the liquid shade, and so did Robin. She sagged and pushed the hood back, freeing her chopped hair with a grimace, and patted at her throat before she remembered, again, that her locket was gone.

  Jeremiah Gallow had it. Was he dead, and the golden gleam in his pocket while he moldered?

  What she had was black velvet, the pipes at her belt, and the small wickedly curved knife welling with its own translucent green poison. The boll Gallow had given her, stuffed in a pocket with a blue plastic ring. And Pepperbuckle, who led her to the tree and sank down to sit, his shoulders rising while his haunches dropped. The hound grinned, tongue lolling and his sharp gleaming teeth exposed, well pleased with himself.

  “Good boy,” she husked, scratching behind his ear just where she’d seen her sister caress stray dogs in their long-ago childhood, just where he liked it. He leaned into the touch, his dark-blue eyes half closing. “Best boy.” She peered up at the tree’s branches, moving in slow semaphore.

  The milk had helped, but her throat was still a little raw. Rest would help even more, and oaks were good trees. Heartsbloods didn’t have dryads lurking in their trunks, but they were sidhe all the same. Some said they spied on all that happened in their shade but never spoke, preferring secrets to blackmail. Others held that their movements were a language all their own, but even highborn fullbloods didn’t live long enough to learn it.

  A very few whispered that they reported to one sidhe only, but nobody knew who. Summer, Unwinter, or someone else, what did it matter? The important thing was, she could rest here, and so could Pepperbuckle.

  At least, until dusk. Unseelie had to wait for true night before they could begin hunting her afresh during Summer’s half of the year. It was small consolation that Summer might not have known Robin was still alive—or, more likely, sane enough—to be hunted, though.

  Am I sane? She shuddered, scratching both of Pepperbuckle’s ears now. The sidhe hound wriggled with delight, his head dropping. The milk had restored him, too.

  The tiny chiming of the pixies made her wonder about the teenager in the small store, miles away by now. Why had pixies bothered to show themselves? It wasn’t like them to take interest in a lowly Half, even if she was Summer’s erstwhile errand girl. They’d intervened when she rode an elfhorse through a city to draw Unwinter away, too, and that had been strangely unlike them as well.

  That was an unpleasant thought, and she shuddered afresh. Pixies clustered both of them, their glowspheres brighter in the liquid shade. “Go away,” Robin murmured, but not very loudly. Conserving her voice was safest. The music under her thoughts, running wide and deep as a silent river, was full of piping chimes now, too. If she listened, maybe she could translate their chatter, but who would want to?

  Best of all would be to climb into the branches and wedge herself in a convenient place. Her ams and legs ached just thinking about it, though the milk and creamer was a steady comforting glow behind her breastbone. In the end, she sank down next to Pepperbuckle, and the dog turned a few times before settling among the roots with her. Robin put one arm over his shoulders, grateful for his warmth, so different than the choking dust-dry mortal heat outside, and shut her eyes.

  Sleep wasn’t long in coming, but before it swallowed her completely she felt tiny pinprick-pats on her face, her throat, her wrists, her hands. The pixies didn’t bite, they merely smoothed their tiny hands over her, their deep indigo glow sinking into her, a drugging calm. Pepperbuckle’s eyes closed halfway, and the dog watched the shadows and the tiny lights with benevolent interest as the mortal wind rattled and rasped.

  A heartsblood oak is a nail, and the mortal world runs around it like softened wax, slow but sure. The world outside that particular bubble of branch, bole, and shade blurred like dye on wet paper, and the tree carried its cargo serenely through a long, warm afternoon.



  Go play, Jenny Markham’s momma said, waving a skinny, languid hand. Both of her friends giggled, the slow slurring sounds that meant they were on their special medicine already, and Jenny’s mother would be soon. Lanky, nervous Topper, who had brought the medicine in the first place, stared at Jenny. Sometimes Jenny’s momma would let her stay inside while they took their medicine, but never while he was there, since Topper had once followed Jenny’s momma from room to room, saying How much, how much, and pointing at Jenny in the corner with her only Barbie while a spring storm made the ceiling drip as if the house itself was crying.

  So Jenny left the close, stinking living room, dodging piles of refuse out of habit, and didn’t bother checking the kitchen for anything to eat. Hunger was a coal in her belly, but there was no school for spring break, which meant no lunch and no Mrs. Anderson, who let Jenny stay in her classroom during playground time, drawing on scrap paper and pretending her teacher was her mommy instead of the wan big-eyed woman with the marks on her arms.

  Outside, golden sunshine bounced off the trailer roofs and the cracked concrete, weeds now green-juicy from spring storms climbing in every crevice. Their own trailer was at the end of the road, huddled in front of a vacant lot starred with broken glass and windblown trash. Small paths ran through a tangle of blackberry bushes, their vines aggressively greening now that they’d received a good soaking or two. Jenny plunged into their embrace, small and quick enough to avoid being caught by thorns, and wandered, wishing there were berries on the branches.

  Maybe she could eat the leaves. Or there was an old lady near the front of the trailer park who threw out a half box of doughnuts every Saturday night, for some reason. You could find all sorts of things in trash cans, if you had to.

  The gnawing in her middle retreated a little, came back, vanished as she worked deeper into the tangle. She began to hum, an anemic half-forgotten pop song matching her lank dishwater hair and her dirty fingernails, her tattered blue jumper and shoes held together with reflective tape.

  At first, breaking into the clearing, she thought s
he was lost, or had wandered too far. Then something zoomed at her face and Jenny ducked, a miserable little cry breaking in the suddenly golden-liquid air. She went down hard, knees and hands jolting on stony ground, almost biting her tongue in half. Tasting blood, she craned her neck to see what it was, but the thing zoomed away. It was an angry flushed red, like a landlord’s face, and much too big for an insect, even a dragonfly. It wasn’t a bird either, even though it flew.

  Jenny rubbed her dry, aching eyes. She didn’t remember this clearing. She especially didn’t remember the tree in the middle, its reddish column growing out of lush grass much greener than even a golf course’s clipped mane. The tree looked funny in more ways than one, but maybe it was just Jenny’s rumbling stomach that made it seem that way.

  There was something like a golden-copper horse lying at the bottom of the tree, and against its side was a sleeping woman in a black robe, like she was in a movie or something. Her short, artfully mussed hair was the color of the horse’s coat, and her skin was flawless-pale.

  The angry little red thing zipped back, along with others like it. They circled her, and the little girl cowered, covering her eyes. They buzzed around her, but they didn’t dart at her face again, and when Jenny crept forward on hands and knees, miserably impelled, they merely hovered over her like a furious cloud. They were, as any idiot could see, little winged people, and Jenny knew what those were called.

  What child doesn’t?

  Perhaps they didn’t swarm her because she was a child, and her slinking approach was full of wonder instead of ill intent. It seemed to take forever to reach the grass, which smelled like crushed mint under her sweating palms. The woman kept sleeping, like she’d had some of Momma’s special medicine in her arm.

  The horse-thing’s head curved down, resting over the woman’s protectively. It was big, and it probably had some wicked teeth. Jenny crawled closer, suddenly very sure the horse-thing wasn’t asleep but it was listening, eyes shut, very carefully.

  She had to be a princess, this beautiful, beautiful woman. Sleeping under a tree with a beautiful animal, with bright-winged creatures all around. It was right out of a storybook, or a dream from Momma’s medicine. Jenny crept close enough to look at the woman’s shoes—black heels, shiny and perfect just like the rest of her. Even the draggled hem of the velvet coat was beautiful, each hole and fraying arranged just so.

  Jenny stretched out in the cool shade, nervously glancing at the flitting lights overhead. They shaded into purple, then deep blue after a while, moving in patterns that weren’t quite random. Hunger and thirst both forgotten, the child barely felt one of the tree’s roots under her thin ribs shift slightly, and after a long while of staring at the princess who had suddenly appeared in a vacant lot, Jenny fell asleep too.

  The oak’s branches hummed sweetly, the bark resounding with a subliminal purr like a plucked string vibrating too low for mortal ears, a pressure felt in heart and throat and wrists. Outside the bubble of shade, the mortal world blurred. Slowly, so slowly, finger-roots of red bark, clotted with rich brown earth, rose to caress the bedraggled mortal child’s form.



  Hunger or temperature didn’t affect a Half much, not once they’d pierced the Veil over the more-than-real the first time. The first few heady gulps of different air, whether in the borderlands of the free sidhe, Summer, or Unwinter’s ashen country with its splashes of crimson, perhaps changed something in those with sidhe blood. Activated something, like flipping a switch, turning on an electric glow in the guts.

  When hunger did come for a Half, it was different than purely mortal emptiness. Maybe it was that Jeremiah wasn’t dead after all, despite everything. Maybe it was Unwinter’s poison, leached out of the long livid scar on his side and leaving weakness in its wake. There was a blowtorch in his belly, and his head was a lot lighter than he was used to.

  Gallow followed Unwinter’s straight, black-clad back through halls of black stone, their ceilings point-arched and Gothic-high. Cobweb curtains hung over some doors, sheer uninterrupted gray sheets, thick with whatever ancient dust fell in Unwinter’s Keep. It wasn’t the first time Gallow had seen these halls.

  It was, however, the first time he’d openly followed an unarmed and unarmored Unseelie through them, the marks on his arms itching unbearably. He could strike, couldn’t he? There was Unwinter’s unprotected back. What was stopping him?

  Not weakness, even though keeping the lance solid would require more effort than usual. And certainly not chivalry. Self-interest, maybe. The poison might simply be abated, not removed. Once Unwinter’s venom worked its way into a wound, it was over. The only surprise was that Gallow lasted as long as he had.

  There was another reason not to strike, one he tried not to think about. He needed all his wits about him right now.

  Well, whatever of them he had left. Gallow scrubbed at his face, stubble scratching against his palms. A flicker of chantment would erase the rasp, but he preferred actual shaving. The scrape of a razor, a trace of cold iron chill-hot, was a mortal ritual.

  Daisy had liked him clean-shaven.

  Stairs rose before Unwinter, who glided upward at the same even pace. Maybe Gallow was dreaming, one last paroxysm before the poison killed him completely.

  Or maybe this was Hell. Would so mortal an idea as the afterlife accept a being with a half share of sidhe blood? If sidhe had no souls, as the Pale God’s wise men had thundered, did that mean Half only had, well, half souls?

  Whatever you have, you know who it belongs to now. Keep moving.

  Up, and up. From Unwinter’s dungeons they climbed, Gallow’s legs aching even as the chilly, dust-laden air moved past him in little feral licks, caressing his face and hands. Small crackles of dried blood, mortal dirt, and remaining traces of sickness dropped away, melting before they hit the grit-dusted stone floor.

  Just like a mortal, stinking up the place. There was no banister, so Gallow leaned against the stone wall as his legs pumped, carrying him after the mop of thistledown hair and the glinting silver fillet. Leather scraped, almost cringing from the inimical chill of the wall. Funny, this was just like following a Father through the halls of the orphanage so long ago, dread weighing his limbs and the adult not even condescending to look back. Of course you’ll follow, the rigid black-clad back said, and of course, Gallow did.

  Another long hall, its left side opening up through a frieze of pierced stone—a gallery, looking over an immense space below. There was no sign of drow or barrow-wight, any of the fullblood highborn sidhe who waited upon Unwinter, or even a guard. You could maybe think the whole Keep was deserted, except for the thrumming in distant halls, the air full of whispers and mutters, silent currents mouthing every exposed edge. A quiet, deadly fermentation.

  Unwinter paused at a junction, took the left-hand path, and did not glance back at Gallow, who hurried to keep up. His stomach trembled on the edge of a growl, an embarrassing mortal noise.

  Longing thoughts of charred meat dripping with spicy, smoky barbecue danced through Gallow’s head. Beer so cold it made the teeth ache, or pungent yellow cheese—which led him to that best of things, full-cream milk, a balm and fullness all at once. Sticks of butter, not the pale clots of fat sold in supermarkets but warm yellow solidified sunlight, still smelling faintly of the hay and the glossy sides of the healthy animal who made it.

  When the sidhe before him finally halted, Gallow did too, swaying slightly, his shoulder hitting the wall again. A chill grated down his side, spreading from the stone.

  Weak. I’m weak.

  Unwinter turned, very slowly, and a cool bath of dread slid down Gallow’s back. Not so long ago another sidhe had led him over hill and dale, to the roof of a mortal building, and Puck Goodfellow’s intent had been murderous.

  There was no shortage of murder flying around lately.

  Unwinter’s hands, each bearing an extra finger and each finger bearing extra joints, hung loose at his sides.
Each finger and both thumbs were armored with rings, jewels colorless and otherwise throbbing with nasty sharp gleams. “Were you thinking to slay me, Gallow?” Thin, cruel, attractive lips—even though he was Unwinter, he was still sidhe, and that meant beauty. A high gloss of cold loveliness, a razor against numb skin. The crimson light living in the cold red orbs of the Unseelie lord’s eyeballs sharpened, the hair-thin black capillaries in his bloody sclera moving ever so slightly.

  It really was very much like Summer’s ageless black gaze. Her eyes held dusty lights, stars and constellations no astronomer would ever decipher; Unwinter’s held the last gleams of a dying sun. Sometimes those among his favored companions bore the bloodspark for a moment or two, in moments of high emotion or extremis… but Unwinter was the only sidhe who permanently bore the bloody gaze.

  “I was.” No point in lying now, Gallow told himself.

  “And yet you refrained.”

  “It seemed impolite.” He didn’t have to work to sound exhausted, or sarcastic, either. Really, when you got to the point of not giving a fuck, why bother?

  The cold grinding noise of Unwinter’s amusement rumbled just under the audible. He spread his flour-pale, fluidly articulated hand against the door, a slight caressing motion that might have sparked nausea if Gallow hadn’t been so used to the way sidhe joints moved. The rings twinkled, the glitter of lights in a drowning mortal’s gaze.

  Gallow blinked.

  A shadow crawled over the back of Unwinter’s hand, there and gone in a moment. He forced his aching eyes to look underneath.

  Hard, evil-looking black pinpricks marched across Unwinter’s skin, each radiating hair-thin cracks. The center of each prickle was a raised bump, a needle-tip of leprous green. “You’re plagued,” he said, flatly.

  “Yes.” The single word made the hallway shudder and flex slightly. “There is only so much will can keep at bay, Gallow. Even a will such as mine.”

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