Wasteland king, p.5
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       Wasteland King, p.5

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  They said it was will alone that kept his ash-and-flaxen lands from sliding deeper into the Veil, just as the flint knife plunging into changeling chests kept Summer green and bountiful. Gallow’s throat had gone dry, or perhaps he just now noticed it. He searched for something to say that wouldn’t remind Unwinter he had a good reason to kill one small, irritating Jeremiah Gallow, and failed to find it.

  The Unseelie lord saved him the trouble. “You took what is mine, and slew one dear to me.”

  Well, he couldn’t argue with that. Killing Unwinter’s parlay might not have been the best move in that particular situation, but it was the only one he could have made.

  Story of my life. “Yes.”

  “Walk with me, just a few steps further.” Unwinter pushed the door, which quivered and scraped its way open, deathly silent.

  Outside, fine smears of ash fell from a slumbrous, umbrous sky. Unwinter’s light was either the sere cold shine of a white winter sun, no warmth to be found in its glow, or the bruise-dusk of a blizzard with ice on its back. Black, lace-starred mountains, their sides splashed with fuming, smoking crimson hellholes of dwarven furnace vents or the mouths of greatwyrm dens, reared in serried edges on the horizon. A narrow obsidian walkway led away from the door, the ash soaking into its surface with tiny puffs of clawed steam. A mutter in the distance was the Dreaming Sea, touching even this cold shore. Above, pennants snapped and fluttered on the wind—black cloth, its edges gracefully fringed by moth-chewing.

  Wait. He’s not flying the red flags. What’s this? Gallow followed as Unwinter strode onto the walkway, each step accompanied by that crackling scream of frozen, compressed air. Finally, Unwinter halted, and rounded on him.

  Jeremiah tensed. Now they were getting somewhere.

  “I will die,” Unwinter said, as calmly as if he were ordering an execution or a breakfast. “But not before I have had my vengeance, Half. Do you understand?”

  Not really. “Here I am.” He almost added, Do your worst, but that was just a step too far, even for a man who didn’t give a fuck if he lived or died.

  Except if he died, who would play this insane ten-sided game to keep Robin safe?

  Unwinter’s lips peeled back from his white, white teeth. The crevices and grooves between them were threaded with crimson, the wide bloody smile of true amusement indistinguishable from a pained grimace. “Indeed. Look upon my realm, Jeremiah Gallow. Look.”

  He did.

  After a long moment, Unwinter spoke again. He told Gallow, softly and calmly, what he wished the Half to do.

  Gallow couldn’t help himself.

  He began to laugh.

  KNIFE

  10

  The slow dead glare of a desert afternoon cradled a sad, sorry collection of broken-down tin shacks. They looked just like Hooverville shanties, except larger and longer.

  Mortals had grown richer even in their poverty, it seemed.

  A sign at the mouth of the group announced it as BUENA VISTA TRAILER PARK, but there was no vista, buena or otherwise. Just tired huddled tin cans in a scraped bowl crowded by weeds, gutted cars on blocks or flat tires, sunbleached children’s toys scattered in random approximations of yards.

  His skin tingled. He lifted his head slightly, and the pressure against every inch of him grew sharper. The instinct of a predator, following invisible clues to his flagging, toothsome prey.

  Of course, the fact that he’d taken a scrap of velvet from her ragged coat probably helped, as well. No reason to make instinct work any harder than it had to. He lifted the fabric to his face again, inhaling deeply. Spiced pear, cherries, a russet thread, a wash of deep evening-sky blue. The salt-sweet tang of mortal blood, all mixing together to make up Robin Ragged.

  The tugging led him through a tangle of indifferently paved streets, each one more sunscorched and sorry than the last. Blackberry bramble clustered at the edges, their fingers thick and juicy even in this arid waste, free earth seeking to reclaim the blot upon its back. In short, it was just the sort of in-between place a sidhe would be drawn to, though the mortal dwellings were rancid and ramshackle. It would offend a brughnie to see the disrepair, and dryads would sniff at the lack of trees. Pixies might gather in the blackberries on a solstice or equinox, and greenjacks or jennywillows might make their homes in the dandruff of mortal refuse spreading out from the bowl, avoiding the rusted appliances that reeked of cold iron but finding much castoff overgrown furniture acceptable. There would be mortals to fox and misery aplenty to grow drunk upon for any sidhe who cared for such things.

  Crenn stepped lightly, his shadow a pool at his feet. High noon buzzed and blurred with insect life among the brambles. There were no gardens, and the houses were shut tight, no mortals visible though he could hear stealthy movement in many of the tin rectangles.

  He followed the tugging to the very edge of the bowl, each corrugated shack turning its back on the empty land beyond. Past the ragged border, sand and sage reclaimed their primacy, but the edges were lined with those blackberry vines, a green wall.

  The tingle-pull became a thrum. He slipped through the nominal idea of front yard this last domicile at the end of the crazy-cracked approximation of a street possessed, and in another moment he would have been gone completely.

  Except the door flung itself open, the ragged screen door pushed wide almost in the same instant, and a lean young mortal, his scent fuming with sicksalt disease and the furious yellow metallic tang of some drug, staggered out into the hammerblow of sunshine. A threadbare flannel shirt fluttered, and he was starred and spangled with crimson.

  “Little giiiiirl,” the mortal crooned, his wide brown eyes glazed with whatever he was high on. “Little giiiiiiiirl, your momma wants you!”

  Crenn halted, caught in midstep, all his weight on one foot and the other hovering a few inches above weedy earth, paused like a cat sighting an inattentive bird.

  The mortal inhaled. “Jeeeeeeennyyyyyyyy!” he yelled, weaving drunkenly down the steps. “Come heeeeeeere, you little biiiiitch!” The gleam in his left hand was a claspknife, and the crimson on him was fresh mortal blood, reeking of iron and salt.

  Below that, the brassy scent of death. He had been at grim work, this drugged mortal apparition.

  Crenn considered this, and might have gone on his way, following a hunter’s certainty. But the mortal saw him and stopped dead, breathing heavily, nostrils and ribs flaring synchronously. Rail-thin, he moved like a pixie-led traveler, quick jerking movements not quite connected to each other. The drug, whatever it was, smelled powerfully adulterated, his body jittering as it sought to consume whatever its rider had subjected it to.

  “Whotha-fuckareyou?” the mortal spat, waving the claspknife for emphasis.

  Crenn gauged the distance between them. A single mortal, even hopped up on an ugly substance, was very little threat. And yet, Robin had come this way. Had she met this welcome as well?

  He set his booted foot down, carefully, and simply regarded the mortal, who wove unsteadily down rickety porch steps. The screen door banged shut, rebounding and quivering, sending weary darts of bright reflected sunlight dancing across yellow, dying grass, and a lopsided blue car crouched in the almost-driveway.

  “I said,” Spittle bubbled on the mortal’s lips, and he enunciated with care now. “Who the fuck are you?”

  Crenn shrugged, a loose liquid movement, and his hand itched for a blade-hilt. “A stranger,” he said finally, measuring each word. Another sidhe might well decide to ill-wish the mortal for his rudeness, or investigate the signs of bloody brutality on him. Alastair, however, had no urge to enter the dark cave of the long rectangular aluminum shanty. “Passing through.”

  The mortal crow-cawed with laughter, weaving another few unsteady steps closer. Don’t, Crenn wanted to tell him. Go on your way, whatever mad way that is, and whatever you’ve done, the punishment will be less than if a sidhe takes notice of you.

  It was already too late. The mortal studied him for a long
taffy-stretching moment, head cocked as if he too was listening to faraway music piercing the Veil from some corner of the more-than-real…

  “JEEEEENNNNYYYYYY!” he howled as he lunged for Crenn, the knife gleaming, cleaving air with slow sweet sounds.

  Crenn stepped aside, half-pivoting, and his booted foot flicked out, catching the weedy mortal in his midriff and sending him stagger-flying back into the crumbling porch. Wood splintered, more blood spattered, this time from broken ends scraping the thrashing mortal body. “Jenny you biiiiitch, you biiiiitch!”

  Does he think my name is Jenny? Crenn shook his head, his hair swaying. It didn’t matter. Nor did whatever crime he’d committed inside the dark cave. What mattered was finding Robin.

  And yet… was there anyone alive in that slumping, glittering, tired old shack? Someone who could perhaps use aid? The blood on the mortal was fresh, and not all of it was his.

  Crenn hesitated as the mortal moaned and thrashed even more. He had to find Robin.

  What would Gallow do? He was the one her gaze followed, the one Robin flung herself into danger for. If Crenn wished to…

  He swore softly, a vicious curse in the Old Language that tore another chunk from the mess of splinters and moaning mortal that was the porch. One of the posts had pierced the mortal’s back, jetting from the front of his belly, slick with blood and a battlefield stench of ordure.

  Nothing stank quite like human bowels, not even in the rotting recesses of Marrowdowne.

  Crenn leapt lightly, balancing on a broken spar. Underneath him, the skinny mortal moaned for Jenny afresh. Bile touched the back of Crenn’s throat as he tore the screen door off its hinges—the damn thing was a nuisance. He plunged into the darkness beyond.

  A few moments ticked by, full of the whisper of wind on dead, blasted grass and throbbing green blackberry vines. The mortal in the ruins of the porch twitched, coughed up bright blood, and the knife dropped from his paw. He exhaled, a long final rattle, and had ceased to move by the time Crenn, pale under his dark hair, rocketed out of the stinking abattoir inside. A few paces away from the shattered porch Crenn leaned over, in the hot sunshine, and retched. Nothing came out—his stomach would not give up its cargo so easily—but still.

  The wind, now heavier, stroked his hair and leathers, touched his fouled boots. It carried distant sirens drawing nearer—some of the stealthy movements in the other tin rectangles were watching, perhaps.

  Alastair Crenn wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and shook his head. His hair swayed, the last bits of dried moss crackling and crumbling green, and he stamped his boots, chantment flickering. The stains were easy enough to shed, and after he did so he ran along the side of the house, following the tugging along his nerves and muscles, leading him onward.

  Even Gallow wouldn’t have been able to help them, he thought, and suppressed another flare of nausea.

  Whoever Jenny was, he hoped she wouldn’t return.

  ROBIN’S ROAD

  11

  Dusk fell in sheaves of indigo, starred with the hard dry points of diamond stars. Robin gained both feet and wakefulness in a single lunge, struggling up out of a nest of warm safety, her hands thrown out like white birds as if to stave off a blow. The oak tree quieted, its branches shivering with unease or just a warm liquid wind full of the promise of rain.

  The simmering smell of minty crushed grass, almost as fragrant as Summer’s shaded hollows, rose around her in veils; her toe caught on something in the almost-dark and she stood for a moment, teetering on the edge of a fall, before the lightfoot and quickstep chantments in the heels woke, righting her with the help of her natural sense of balance. Her hair didn’t swing heavily, her head curiously naked, and she ran her fingers back over the ragged, chopped mass before she remembered cutting it in the carnival trailer while her nameless hostess slept.

  They had dragged her from the sea’s embrace, and been burned by the Unseelie for their pains. Just another instance of sidhe spreading death and destruction, the poison of a Half caught between two realms and at home in neither. Robin exhaled sharply, silently, as her pulse returned to normal and the unthinking terror retreated.

  The nudging at her toe was a small discolored skull sinking into the crushed grass and rich black soil, vanishing almost as Robin peered at it. The tree hummed, and Robin cast a glance over her shoulder, gauging the sound.

  Pepperbuckle rose a little less expeditiously, shaking his fine coat, his tail dipping, then wagging vigorously. He yawned, pearly serrated underteeth gleaming wickedly, and the music under Robin’s thoughts took on the slow sonorous fluting of the desert wind against worn rocks.

  Tiny balls of pixie-light cavorted in the branches, some of them darting down to circle her, their glow turning deep incandescent blue when they crossed the border of her space, into her cloak of breathing chantment. After circling, they laughed, giddy as schoolchildren released for the summer, and flitted off to chase each other in the branches once more, while a fresh crop descended to her level. They sang, snatches of mortal obscenities and sweet chiming songs in sidhe slang, and every once in a while one of them pronounced a few syllables of the Old Language and brightened, faltering in midflight and falling, sometimes recovering itself before it hit the ground and sometimes winking out, consumed by the oldest and truest of tongues.

  Pepperbuckle nosed her hip. The heartsblood oak shivered, bending slightly as the Veil swished around it, and she suddenly knew, without a doubt, that one of her pursuers was close.

  Robin took stock. Her throat no longer ached or rasped, but letting out the song here might destroy the oak and send her tumbling through the Veil in a most unpleasant fashion. Best to save it for when she really needed it, although it could fail then if she had injured herself by screaming helplessly, hoarsely, before she ran out into the sky from the tower and fell into the Dreaming Sea.

  Don’t think about that. Little prickles all over her, underneath the black velvet, as if goosebumps were trying to break through her skin and not quite succeeding. It was past, she’d survived it, and she was relatively…

  Well, still relatively sane, hopefully. Would it occur to Summer to visit the tower again and see its broken stub rising like a jagged tooth, or a hole in its sheer white side, and would she guess Robin was still alive? The Queen had promised her life to Jeremy Gallow, but if Robin had… done something to herself, that couldn’t be considered Summer’s fault, now could it?

  Next time, Summer might take extra steps. If she knew Robin was still alive, or suspected Robin wasn’t driven to madness by the…

  The mirrors. She shuddered, rubbing at her upper arms, and Pepperbuckle made a low sound, not quite a whine or a word.

  I don’t have just me to look out for. Robin dropped her hands. Shook them out, planted her feet in the soft earth. It gave resiliently under her heels, not quite as dirt really would, like almost-plastic stone. The sense of a pursuer, very close, perhaps tracking the heartsblood oak patiently through shifting layers of the Veil, taunted her.

  Where would they be safest? Another night of running in the mortal world would simply exhaust them both. She half turned, gazing at the pixies—they’d never treated her in this fashion before. Spying on her for someone? But who would take the time to listen to scatterbrained little wingflicks, even if you could convince them to stick to a task for more than a few moments?

  She shook her shorn head, as if to dislodge the question. Better to think about things she could do. What was possible, right at this moment?

  Her mouth tasted of crushed mint, the softness of leftover cream, and a sharp brassy note. Blood, perhaps.

  Or fear, that constant companion. Once, she’d thought maybe you could outgrow being afraid. Then, as something that could be called adulthood settled on her at Summer’s Court, she realized it grew with you, twining like a vine through blood and breath and bone.

  The fullblood could feel it, too, certainly. But mortal fear, Robin thought, had to have a flavor and a sh
apeshifting ability all its own. A half measure of sidhe only made it stronger, maybe. Just as it made muscle and bone more durable, and gifted a measure of breathing chantment.

  Pepperbuckle leaned against her. Robin’s left hand, caught in his ruff, squeezed unmercifully, but he didn’t seem in the least troubled or pained by her grip.

  Summer was closed to her, and there were none among the free sidhe who could or would shelter her. Even Morische the Cobbler, who had made her shoes, wouldn’t grant her any aid—they were at quits, the crafty, vicious little sod and Robin.

  Let me go, and I shall give thee hooves which will not falter.

  Which left running through the mortal nights until she was brought down, or doing something nobody would expect of a Summer sidhe.

  Put that way, the answer became almost ridiculously simple.

  She found the edge of the heartsblood oak’s influence, the lush grass fringing like seaweed as different layers of real and more-than-real flowed past, turning over, thickening. She braced herself on one foot, extending the toes of her right foot out of the oak’s sphere. A cool, dragging pressure, a current against her leg. Pepperbuckle’s deep, inquiring whine.

  “You don’t have to follow me,” she whispered, not trusting her voice, but the hound made a short chuffing sound, as if he considered her ridiculous.

  Perhaps he did. In any case, her fingers refused to let go of his ruff and he hunkered down slightly, anchoring them both.

  The pixies sent up an unhappy, chiming racket, but Robin took a deep breath, her planted leg bending just a little as she prepared herself. She whistled, a high drilling noise you didn’t need a throat for. Pepperbuckle tensed, and when she jumped, landing hard on her right foot, the impact threatened to send her sprawling. He crowded behind her, vital and warm, and they spilled onto a quartz road under a bruise-dark sky, dusk instantly becoming thick night under tangled, thorny branches.

 
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