Wasteland king, p.8
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       Wasteland King, p.8

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  The sidhe woman said nothing. Her gaze held Unwinter’s, and for a moment, the two ancient, ageless creatures held a thin humming line of force between them. Seen in this attitude, the similarity of sidhe was underlined—the beauty of a cheekbone-curve, the glamour of weariness, the daggered edges of armor or mantle fashioned with the same aesthetic geometry.

  Unwinter lifted a mailed finger, and a door opened. His highest-ranking steward, the blind bone-masked robed scarecrow, glided in.

  “Make our lady Feathersalt comfortable in the West Chambers,” Unwinter said gravely. “There is one I will send with you, my lady. We await an arrival.”

  “I will wait one day,” she said, haughty, chin up and her fan trembling slightly. She was not quite as unconcerned as she wished to appear.

  “By all means,” Unwinter said very softly, “leave without my permission. You will never be granted another audience, no matter what artifact you claim to know the resting place of. I have not forgotten where your true allegiance lies.”

  “Allegiance.” Her laughter, an elf-maid’s careless rill of amusement, turned the flashing motes of ice in the air to blue petals, forming just under the ceiling and turning the hall into a bower. “We are Danu’s chosen, my lord. We serve only ourselves.”

  Unwinter settled back into the gloom as she followed the Steward, her step light as a leaf and the robed creature’s soundless. When the door closed, the petals turned to ice, and plummeted instead of drifting, shattering on the glassine floor. The perfumed smoke they released was whisked away with a cold, bright exhalation.

  “Speak,” Unwinter said quietly, privately, “for yourself.”

  A MAN SHE COULD

  16

  Alastair Crenn jolted free of the heartsblood oak’s bubble, his mortal boots hitting concrete and the world contracting and loosening around him as dusk and dust both swirled. Passing through the Veil made time as well as space jump and bend in interesting ways, and had he less sidhe blood it might well cramp his belly to leap so cavalierly in the direction instinct tugged and told him Robin had taken.

  Unfortunately, as soon as his feet left the ground, something had shifted, and he realized he’d been just a fraction of a second off. Late or early, it didn’t matter. He hung suspended in the flux; sometimes you could get back on track if you focused, desperately, on the trail you were following.

  Instead, the awful drilling whistle hadn’t finished echoing through the real and more-than-real. It yanked him sideways, spilling him out on weed-cracked concrete, the breath squeezed from his lungs with an inelegant huffing noise. He landed catfoot-soft, a chainlink fence to his left rattling snakelike, uneasy. Crenn hopped like a marsh-bird, the lightfoot blooming under his soles in case he needed to leap, and found himself next to a weed-choked vacant lot probably full of pixies on summer nights, the neglected street to his right holding only burned-out hulks of warehouses. Firesmell still hung in the air, faint and fading; mortals wouldn’t smell it, but a sidhe could almost hear the flames and shouts. Something had happened here, high emotion tearing and curdling the Veil. Riot and burning.

  Overhead, the hard bright points of stars winked in and out of rents torn in scurrying cloud. Crenn turned in a full circle sunwise-deosil, either to shake off pursuit or to aid his thinking and clear the noise from his head. You could always mark the sidhe-touched—a single item worn inside out, an undone seam or selvage edge unraveling, a circling or turning, all the old ways to shake off pursuit. Mortals had forgotten, of course. At least, most of them had, and sidhe mischief wasn’t what it used to be. With so much cold iron and exhaust poisoning the very air, opportunities were fewer, and rationalism meant the Folk weren’t propitiated like they used to be. Crenn had heard some fullbloods bemoan the boredom, and others plan fantastical vengeance. They said When the mortals are gone, just as mortals had said When the Depression ends, in the faraway time of his youth—a fanciful event that might or might not happen, a pixie-led pipe dream.

  He could still hear it, faint and faraway, a high cruel silver note filling the unheard corners of dusk. Crenn knew the pale imitations, the silver Unseelie huntwhistles.

  This was something else.

  Either Gallow had winded Unwinter’s Horn, or Unwinter had regained it. If the Unseelie lord had reclaimed his property and used it in this fashion, it could only mean he was bringing down the Half who had thieved from him.

  Well, good. Let Gallow finally rest in a stew of his own making. Alastair Crenn’s business was finding Robin.

  I shall cut your heart out, Alastair Crenn. And his own reply, given afterward when she could not possibly hear.

  Too late.

  How, by Stone or Throne, had that selfish prick drawn such a woman into caring for him? It was a mystery.

  Crenn knotted his fingers through rattling chainlink, shielded from cold iron by the mortal half of his inheritance. He almost shut his eyes, wondering why he wasn’t turning around to find another rip in the Veil to slide through, picking up Robin’s trail again. It was an uncomfortable thing when a man didn’t know his own mind.

  What was he thinking? Surely he didn’t owe Gallow anything. It was the Half bastard’s fault Crenn had been scarred in the first place. Or at least, wounded so badly the scars lingered.

  He’d told himself as much so often he almost believed it.

  And yet.

  He could all but see Robin, her coppery hair dark with rain, her summerdusk eyes wide and mistrustful, softening only when she glanced at Jeremiah Gallow. For Alastair Crenn, who drugged her with shusweed and delivered her to whatever vengeance the Queen had waiting, there would be no softness.

  Robin, head held high, had actually spat at the ruler of Seelie, and plunged into the darkness of her own accord. With a woman like that at his back, what couldn’t a man do?

  In the swamps of Marrowdowne, patience brought Crenn everything he needed. He could keep after her, begging for scraps, or he could do something… better. Something worthy of her.

  What are you thinking, Alastair?

  The air chilled. His eyelids raised from half-mast, heavily, and he looked through the chainlink. The blood drained from his face, he could feel it sinking from cheek and forehead, and his fingers spasmed shut.

  The echoes of flame and riot around him intensified, cricket-chirping in a deadly silence. In the middle of the field, where the Veil curdled heaviest, thin threads of mist rose, smoke describing shapes rising vapor shouldn’t be able to form. A chill crept up his muscled back, and behind his hanging hair, shaken over his eyes out of old habit, Crenn’s irises turned briefly bright springleaf-green before fading into their usual darkness.

  The Sluagh were rising.

  Which meant their prey was close.

  He could, he supposed, just let them hunt Gallow down. It was what the bastard deserved.

  On the other hand, a man Robin Ragged would look kindly upon might not do that. Instead, he might do something foolish, like try to help a cornered animal escape the Hunt. Or, if Gallow had winded the Horn…

  That was ridiculous. There was no reason for a Half to do that. It was far, far more likely that Gallow had committed a fatal misstep. Helping him was suicidal. It was idiotic. It was the single worst thing he could do if he wanted to survive.

  It was also, probably, the one thing he could bring to Robin Ragged, to gain a slight welcome.

  Like a cat offering a half-dead vole. You’re not seriously considering this, are you?

  He watched the shapes rise, the unforgiving dead clothing themselves in steam and chill, gathering form and substance from proximity to their prey. The hunted one, sidhe or mortal, was close. He noted the way the gossamer smoke streamed from them, yearning, vaguely northwest.

  “Gallow,” he whispered, unable to help himself.

  A powdery-white bloom spread through them, and one or two turned their smoke-draped heads in his direction. They intensified, and his heart began a high hard elfhorse gallop inside his ribs.

&nb
sp; Well. That answered that.

  At the very least, Crenn would be able to tell her how he died.

  He was running beside the chainlink fence before the thought faded, and when it ended he cut across the road. Sooner or later he’d be able to turn northwest, and as long as he followed the thickening of the Sluagh he would eventually find his way to their prey. He might even, if he were blessed, get there too late.

  The thought made him speed up, the ground-eating lope a Half assassin could keep up for a very long time, and he hoped his legs wouldn’t give out.

  He also hoped the Sluagh wouldn’t take an interest in him, as well.

  A COWER, A SONG

  17

  Her hand had gone numb, knotted in Pepperbuckle’s ruff. The wind, full of those dancing speckles of ash and knife-edged chill, licked at the edges of her velvet robe. Some needle-chantment had mended the worst of the fraying and holes, and now she looked no less ragged than a ghilliedhu girl or a minstrel. She was glad of the hood, too, since her chopped hair no longer kept her neck warm. The redgold was too distinctive, even if it looked like she’d hacked at the strands with a knife.

  Which she had, as a matter of fact.

  Robin shivered, looking up at the pile of lacy black stone. It rose, spire upon spire, and from many of the towers black pennants snapped and crackled in the rising wind. The Road had crept downhill and out of the tangle of the Dak’r, and perhaps it was because of that awful, chilling sound in the distance that she was allowed to pass unmolested. Certainly the thorn-dark woods, the foliage of ash-white, deep umber, and the occasional flash of scarlet, had turned silent afterward, and the sense of unfriendly eyes upon her had faded significantly.

  The drawbridge was down. The moat, its sluggish, opalescent water calm as a slug’s leavings on flat dirt, looked placid enough. Robin sought to remember every scrap of legend or tale she’d heard of the Keep and Unwinter’s cold realm, and decided there was no use in having a moat if there was nothing in the water to fear.

  “What do you think?” she whispered, bending slightly. Pepperbuckle’s blue eyes, a shade or two lighter than hers now, gazed calmly upon the open cobblestones of a bailey behind the throat of gate-and-portcullis both open. It was a very large maw, and she a very small morsel indeed.

  His ears flicked. That was all.

  “I don’t suppose you’d wait here for me.” The last of the shusweed numbness had left her throat, but she still didn’t dare speak loudly. The words purred, rough honey at every edge, as if the music below her thoughts needed less than the act of singing to release it.

  Would she be rendered mute, unable even to speak for fear of unleashing destruction on the world? It might even be a relief; if she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t get drawn in.

  Oh, you know the sidhe would find a way, Robin.

  The hound didn’t move, still as stone. Not tense, simply… watchful.

  There was some comfort, she supposed, in such steadfastness. She had done what no Half dared to attempt and succeeded so handsomely the evidence wouldn’t leave her side, even when she stepped over the shifting borders into this gray, cheerless place. Unwinter even seemed to suit Pepperbuckle—or he was merely larger now, and shaggier against the cold.

  She considered the drawbridge afresh. She’d come this far. Setting her feet upon that tongue of black timber and metal, dwarven-wrought and sturdy but still a slim hair over the moat’s sheen, seemed perhaps a bit too far.

  A shadow grew under the portcullis. Thin and tapering, with branchlike fingers and a high-crested pale head, it glided forth, pausing imperceptibly before stepping onto the bridge. Robin swallowed, dryly. Her presence had been noted.

  With any luck, this sidhe would tell her to go away.

  But to where? Summer? The shudder passing through her might have been mistaken for faltering.

  The crest on the sidhe’s head was a wide fan-expanse of bone, lacking eyes. The mouth was a cruel slit, the teeth serrated-sharp, and the sticklike sidhe in black velvet much finer than her own glided to a halt some ten paces away. A steward, then, sent to greet her.

  Pepperbuckle’s ears pricked fully now, and his ruff stood up around Robin’s hand, fur brushing her wrist, a stripe raised all the way down his back and along his fine tail.

  “Ragged,” the creature breathed, the word a hiss even without sibilants. “You are ex-sspected. Allow me to welcome you, and esscort you into the Keep.”

  Her throat was dry. There was no way to avoid what came next. “I… I come as a messenger, to the lord of these lands.”

  “You come as a ssupplicant, my lady Ragged.” The scarecrow bent slightly at his middle, with a creaking. The bow was accompanied by a spreading of its pale, multifingered strangler’s hands. Had it once been a drow or barrow-wight? “And my lord wisshes wordss with thee.”

  Oh, no doubt he did. Many words, and perhaps a death or two.

  Robin gathered her courage and stepped onto the bridge. The moat-water rippled once, its oily sheen intensifying, before it turned smooth and placid again.

  The hall was vast, and she couldn’t stop shivering. She didn’t dare examine the firepit, its cold blue stone-eating flames trammeled by the runes flowing at its lip. She didn’t care to look closely at the Throne either, its high piercing spires tipped with frozen, rusty stains. Robin stood just a few paces inside the door, which the bone-frilled, eyeless steward closed behind her with a sound like river-ice cracking. Pepperbuckle’s tail did not wag, tucked securely under his hind end, and he leaned into her, his warmth a comfort and a reminder all at once.

  Overhead, dusty flags hung motionless. Tiny slivers of ice sometimes worked free of their edges and fell, vanishing in midair with tiny crackles. No Summer sidhe would be comfortable here.

  She didn’t even have the song to protect her. What if Unwinter decided she was a loose end that needed snipping, or an insult? They said he gave shelter to the desperate, the unclean, the outcast, as long as they obeyed. She’d caused him a great deal of trouble and cost him the lives of no few of his followers, and even if he was disposed to listen to her before he gutted her…

  Her breathing heat sent tiny questing fingers of steam up, a halo shouting she didn’t belong here. Her acceptance into Summer’s ranks had been sealed with a soft pressure of the Queen’s lips against Robin’s damp forehead so long ago, with Puck hungrily gazing on.

  What did Unwinter do? Would it be painful?

  “Robin.” A soft, hurtful voice. “Robin Ragged.”

  Her eyes flickered, her gaze roving to find the source. The Throne’s recesses were too dark to pierce, even with sidhe-sharp eyes. Pepperbuckle’s ears flattened against his graceful head, and his fur was tipped with tiny condensing droplets.

  One moment, nothing; the next, a tall broad-shouldered sidhe-shape separated from the Throne’s shadow. He stood, armored from shoulder to spurred foot in blackened dwarven-made metal, pale hair held down by a plain silver band. Wearily attractive, with a sharp nose and dark eyebrows, his cheekbones gaunt blades and his lips blue as a drowned man’s, he took another step away from the Throne and stood at the rim of the dais leading to it, the steps of knife-sharp almost-obsidian laced with delicate traceries of frost.

  They looked like doilies, the kind elderly women in trailer parks put under knickknacks, crocheted by hand or bought in packets from catalogs full of cheap gadgets meant to stave off age or decorate empty loneliness. A mad red urge to bray a giggle or two threatened to block Robin’s throat, but she swallowed hard, tasting the peculiar copper of fear and anticipation.

  Four in, four out. Keep breathing, Robin. And if he wants to kill you, you may as well try to sing.

  She put one toe behind her and bent the other leg, an approximation of a Court courtesy, bowing her shorn head. When she regained her balance and looked up, he hadn’t moved, his boots spreading veins of ice across the stone. The steps rang as his weight shifted fractionally, and she flinched. Pepperbuckle made a low whining noise, pressing
ever closer.

  “You are in no danger, Half.” Each word carefully, precisely measured.

  Robin found her free hand was a fist, to match the one wound in Pepperbuckle’s ruff. “I beg to differ, my lord.” Her voice sounded strange, even to herself, and the runes marching quietly along the firepit’s rim flared into ruddy gold for a few moments.

  A millimeter’s shift of that cruel blue mouth. At least he wasn’t showing his teeth. Was it a smile? Did she amuse him?

  “Our last parlay was interrupted.” His mailed left hand rested on a massive hilt at his side, the colorless icy jewel in the pommel holding a single bloody spark at its center to match his crimson eyes. Unwinter took another step, descending from the Throne. Would her blood dew its sharp spines?

  They said he used to hang prey from his castle’s sharp stabbing spires if the hunt had displeased him. Courage brought you a quick death. Almost painless.

  Almost.

  Robin began to feel strangely lightheaded. Breathe, damn you. Four in, four out.

  “That was not my doing.” She measured the words carefully, sparing herself breath between each one. Her voice seemed to be holding. That was good.

  He took another step. “Indeed.” A long pause. Hot blood thundered in her ears, in her wrists and throat.

  I should be begging him to take me in. I should have a pretty speech prepared. If the song burst free here…

  Thoughtfully, lingering over each syllable, he spoke again. “I expected you.”

  “Did you?” Her heart kept pounding. If this kept up it might explode and she would be free of the entire mess.

  “Where else do you have to go?” His right hand lifted, made a slow graceful sweeping movement, and Pepperbuckle cowered even more desperately against Robin, almost knocking her off her feet. She made her knees stiffen, with a physical effort that almost made her sweat. “But soft, there is a question I would ask thee.”

 
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