Wolf Who Rules
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright ©2006 by Wen Spencer
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
First printing, April 2006
Cover art by Kurt Miller
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wolf Who Rules / by Wen Spencer.
"A Baen Books original."
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-2055-9 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1-4165-2055-4 (hardcover)
1. Elves—Fiction. I. Title.
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Printed in the United States of America
To Ann Cecil,
In many ways, elf-like.
Greg Armstrong, David Brukman,
Ann Cecil, Gail Brookhart, Kevin Hayes,
W. Randy Hoffman
Nancy Janda, Kendall Jung,
Don Kosak, June Drexler Robertson,
John Schmid, Linda Sprinkle,
Diane Turnshek, Andi Ward,
Joy Whitfield and
Thorne Scratch, who let me steal
her lock, stock and barrel
Baen Books by Wen Spencer
Wolf Who Rules
PROLOGUE: CUP OF TEARS
Elves may live forever, but their memories do not. Every elfin child is taught that any special memory has to be polished bright and carefully stored away at the end of a day, else it will slip away and soon be forgotten.
Wolf Who Rules Wind, viceroy of the Westernlands and the human city of Pittsburgh, thought about this as he settled before the altar of Nheoya, god of longevity. It was one more thing he would have to teach his new domi, Tinker. While clever beyond measure, she had spent her childhood as a human. He had only transformed her genetically into an elf; she lacked the hundred years of experience that all other adult elves lived through.
Wolf lit the candle of memory, clapped to call the god's attention to him, and bestowed his gift of silver on the altar. Normally he would wait to reach perfect calmness before starting the ceremony, but he didn't have time. He'd spent most of the last two days rescuing his domi, fighting her oni captors, and discovering how and why they had kidnapped her away. In truth, he should be focusing on his many responsibilities, but the fact that his domi had been restored to him on the eve of Memory made him feel it was important to observe the ritual.
He picked up the cup of tears. As a child, he couldn't understand why anyone would want to cling to bad memories. It had taken the royal court, with all its petty betrayals, to teach him the importance of bitterness; you needed to remember your mistakes to learn from them. For the first time, however, he did not dwell on those affairs of the heart. They all seemed minor now. His assistant, Sparrow Lifted by Wind, had taught him the true meaning of treachery.
He replayed now all her betrayals, slowly drinking down the warm saltwater. He did not know when she had started working with the oni, perhaps as early as the first day the human's orbital hyperphase gate had shifted Pittsburgh to Elfhome. He knew for sure that she'd spent the last few weeks subtly detouring him away from the oni compound. She had arranged for his blade brother Little Horse to be alone, so the oni could kidnap him and use him as a whipping boy. So many lies and deceptions! Wolf remembered the blank look on her face as she talked on her cell phone on that last day. He knew now the call was from the oni noble, Lord Tomtom, alerting her that Tinker and Little Horse had escaped. What excuse had she used to slip away in order to intercept them? Oh yes, a member of the clan needed someone to mediate between them and the Pittsburgh police. He had thanked her for sparing him from such small responsibilities so he could focus on finding the two people most important to him. Too bad Little Horse gave her such a clean death.
Dawn was breaking, and the cup of tears was drained, so he set aside his bitter memories. As light spilled into the temple, he lifted the cup of joys.
Normally he would dwell for hours on his happy childhood in his parents' household, and then, with a few exceptions, skip over all the lonely years he spent at court, and start again as he built his own household and settled the Westernlands. He did not have time today. In celebration of their safety, he thought only of Tinker and Little Horse.
Sipping his honeyed tea, he remembered Little Horse's birth and childhood, how he grew in leaps and bounds between Wolf's visits back home, until he was old enough to be part of Wolf's household. He brought with him the quiet affection that Wolf missed from his parents' home. Bitterness at Sparrow tried to crowd in, but Wolf ignored the temptation to dwell on those thoughts. He had only a short time left, and he wasn't going to waste it on her.
He turned his thoughts to Tinker. A human, raised on Elfhome, she was a delightful mix of human sensibility steeped in elfin culture. They had met once years ago, when she had saved him from a saurus. She had saved him again from a recent oni assassination attempt. The days afterward, as she struggled to keep him alive, she proved her intelligence, leadership, compassion, and fortitude. Once he realized that she was everything that he wanted in a domi, it was as if floodgates had opened in his heart, letting loose a tide of emotions he hadn't suspected himself capable of. Never had he wanted so much to protect another person. The very humanity that he loved in her made her butterfly fragile. The only way to keep her brightness shining was to make her an elf. At the time, he had regretted the necessity, but no longer. As a human, Tinker would have either been taken away from the home she loved by the NSA, or she wouldn't have survived Sparrow's betrayal. If he had any regrets it was trusting Sparrow and underestimating the oni.
Much as he'd have liked to continue dwelling on the good memories of his beloved, there was too much to do. Reluctantly, Wolf Who Rules blew out the candle, stood, and bowed to the god. The oni had forced his domi into building a gateway between their world and the neighborhood of Turtle Creek. Since the oni were gaining access to Earth (and ultimately Elfhome) via the orbital hyperphase gate, Tinker had used her gate to destroy the one in orbit. Unfortunately there were side effects not even his beloved could explain. Pittsburgh was now stuck on Elfhome. Turtle Creek had melted into liquid confusion. And something, most likely the orbital gate, had fallen from the sky like shooting stars. It left them with no way to return the humans to Earth, and an unknown number of oni among them.
1: GHOST LANDS
There were some mistakes that "Oops" just didn't cover.
Tinker stood on the George Westinghouse Bridge. Behind her was Pittsburgh and its sixty thousand humans now permanently stranded on Elfhome. Below her lay the mystery that at one time had been Turtle Creek. A blue haze filled the valley; the air shimmered with odd distortions. The land itself was a kaleidoscope of possibilities—elfin forest, oni houses, the Westinghouse Air Brake Plant—fractured pieces of various dimensions all jumbled together. And it was all her fault.
Color had been leached from the valley, except for the faint blue taint, making the features seem insubstantial. Perhaps the area was too unstable to reflect all wavelengths of light—or maybe the full spectrum of light wasn't able to pass through—the—the—she lacked a name for it.
Tinker decided that was as good a name as any.
"What are these Ghostlands?" asked her elfin bodyguard, Pony. He'd spoken in Low Elvish. Ghostlands had been in English, though, meaning a human had coined the term. Certainly the phrase fit the ghostly look of the valley.
So maybe Discontinuity wasn't the best name for it.
A foot taller than Tinker, Pony was a comforting wall of heavily armed and magically shielded muscle. His real name in Elvish was Waetata-watarou-tukaenrou-bo-taeli, which meant roughly Galloping Storm Horse on Wind. His elfin friends and family called him Little Horse, or tukaenrou-tiki, which still was a mouthful. He'd given her his English nickname to use when they met; it wasn't until recently that she had realized it had been his first act of friendship.
"I don't know what's happening here." Tinker ran a hand through her short brown hair, grabbed a handful and tugged, temptation to pull it out running high. "I set up a resonance between the gate I built and the one in orbit. They were supposed to shake each other apart. They did."
At least, she was fairly sure that they had. Something had fallen out of the sky that night in a fiery display. Since there were only a handful of small satellites in Elfhome's orbit, it was a fairly safe bet that she had somehow yanked the hyperphase gate out of Earth's orbit.
"This was—unexpected." She meant all of it. The orbital gate reduced to so much space debris and burnt ash on the ground. Turtle Creek turned into Ghostlands. Pittsburgh stuck on Elfhome.
Even "sorry" didn't seem adequate.
And what had happened to the oni army on Onihida, waiting to invade Elfhome through her gate? To the oni disguised as humans worked on the gate with her? And Riki, the tengu who had betrayed her?
"Is it going to—get better?" Pony asked.
"I think so." Tinker sighed, releasing her hair. "I can't imagine it staying in this unstable state." At least she hoped so. "The second law of thermodynamics and all that."
Pony grunted a slight optimistic sound, as if he was full of confidence in her intelligence and problem solving. Sometimes his trust in her was intimidating.
"I want to get closer." Tinker scanned the neighboring hillsides, looking for a safe way down to the valley's floor. In Pittsburgh, nothing was as straightforward as it appeared. This area was mostly abandoned—probably with help from the oni to keep people away from their secret compound. The arcing line of the Rim, marking where Pittsburgh ended and Elfhome proper began, was diffused by advancing elfin forest. Ironwood saplings mixed with jagger bushes—elfin trees colliding with Earth weed—to form a dense impenetrable thicket. "Let's find a way down."
"Is that wise, domi?"
"We'll be careful."
She expected more of an argument, but he clicked his tongue, the elfin equivalent of a shrug.
Pony leaned out over the bridge's railing; the spells tattooed down his arms in designs like Celtic knots—done in Wind Clan blue—rippled as muscle moved under skin. The hot wind played with tendrils of glossy black hair that had come loose from his braid. Dressed in his usual wyvern-scaled chest armor, black leather pants, and gleaming knee boots, Pony seemed oblivious to the mid-August heat. He looked as strong and healthy as ever. During their escape, the oni had nearly killed him. She took some comfort that he was the one thing that she hadn't totally messed up.
As they had recuperated, she'd endured an endless parade of visitors between bouts of drugged sleep, which gave the entire experience a surreal nightmare feel. Everyone had brought gifts and stories of Turtle Creek, until her hospice room and curiosity overflowed.
Thanks to her new elfin regenerative abilities, she'd healed far faster than when she was a human; she'd awakened this morning feeling good enough to explore. Much to her dismay, Pony insisted on bringing four more sekasha for a full Hand.
Yeah, yeah, it was wise, considering they had no clue how many oni survived the meltdown of Turtle Creek. She was getting claustrophobic, though, from always having hordes of people keeping watch over her; first the elves, then the oni, and now back to the elves. When she ran her scrap yard—months ago—a lifetime ago — she used to go days without seeing anyone but her cousin Oilcan.
As viceroy, her husband, Wolf Who Rules Wind, or Windwolf, held twenty sekasha; Pony picked her favorite four out of that twenty to make up a Hand. The outlandish Stormsong—her rebel short hair currently dyed blue—was acting as a Shield with Pony. Annoyingly, though, there seemed to be some secret sekasha rule—only one Shield could have a personality at any time. Stormsong stood a few feet off, silent and watching, in full bodyguard mode while Pony talked to Tinker. It would have been easier to pretend that the sekasha weren't guarding over her if they weren't so obviously "working."
The bridge secured, the other three sekasha were being Blades and scouting the area. Pony signaled them now using the sekasha's hand gestures called blade talk. Rainlily, senior of the Blades, acknowledged—Tinker recognized that much by now—and signaled something more.
"What did she say?" Tinker really had to get these guys radios. She hated having to ask what was going on; until recently, she had always known more than everyone else.
"They found something you should see."
The police had strung yellow tape across the street in an attempt to cordon off the valley; it rustled ominously in a stiff breeze. Ducking under the tape, Tinker and her Shields joined the others. The one personality rule extended to the Blades; only Rainlily got to talk. Cloudwalker and Little Egret moved off, searching the area for possible threats.
"We found this in the middle of the road." Rainlily held out a bulky white, waterproof envelope. "Forgiveness, we had to check it for traps."
The envelope was addressed with all possible renditions of her name: Alexander Graham Bell, "Tinker" written in English, and finally Elvish runes of "Tinker of the Wind Clan." The sekasha had already slit it open to examine the contents and replaced them. Tinker tented open the envelope and peered inside; it held an old MP3 player and a note written in English.
I have great remorse for what I did. I'm sorry for hurting you both. I wish there had been another way. Riki Shoji.
"Yeah, right." Tinker scoffed and crumpled up the note and flung it away. "Like that makes everything okay, you damn crow."
She wanted to throw the MP3 player too, but it wasn't hers. Oilcan had loaned it to Riki. The month she'd been at Aum Renau, Oilcan and Riki had become friends. Or at least, Oilcan thought they were friends, just the same as he thought they were both human. Riki, though, was a lying oni spy, complete with bird-feet and magically retractable crow wings. He'd wormed his way into their lives just to kidnap Tinker. She doubted that Oilcan would want the player back now that he knew the truth; it would be a permanent reminder that Oilcan's trust nearly cost Tinker her life. But it wasn't her right to decide for him.
She jammed the player into the back pocket of her shorts. "Let's go."
Rage smoldered inside her until they had worked their way down to the Discontinuity. The mystery of the Ghostlands deepened, drowning out her anger. The edge of the blue seemed uneven at first, but then, as she crouched down to eye it closely, she realized that the effect "pooled" like water, and that the ragged edge was due to the elevation of the land—like the edge of a pond. Despite the August heat, ice gathered in the shadows. This close, she could hear a weird white noise, not unlike the gurgle of a river.
She found a long stick and prodded at the blue-shaded earth; it slowly gave like thick mud. She moved along the "shore" testing the shattered pieces of three worlds within reach of her stick. Earth fire hydrant. Onihida building. Elfhome ironwood tree. While they looked solid, everything within the zone of destruction was actually insubstantial, giving under the firm poke of her stick.
Pony stiffened with alarm when—after examining the stick for damage done to it and finding it as sound as before—she reached her hand out over the line.
Oddly, there was a resistance in the air over the land—as if Tinker was holding her hand out the window of a moving car. The air grew cooler as she lowered her hand. It was so very creepy that she had to steel herself to actually touch the dirt.
It was like plunging her bare hand into snow. Bitterly cold, the dirt gave under her fingertips. Within seconds, the chill was painful. She jerked her hand back.
"Domi?" Pony moved closer to her.
"I'm fine." Tinker cupped her left hand around her right. As she stood, blowing warmth onto her cold-reddened fingers, she gazed out onto the Ghostlands. She could feel magic on her new domana senses, but normally—like strong electrical currents—heat accompanied magic. Was the "shift" responsible for the cold? The presence of magic, however, would explain why the area was still unstable—sustaining whatever reaction the gate's destruction created. If her theory was right, once the ambient magic was depleted, the effect would collapse and the area would revert back to solid land. The only question was the rate of decay.
Pony picked up a stone and skipped it out across the disturbance. Faint ripples formed where the stone struck. After kissing "dirt" three times, the stone stopped about thirty feet in. For a minute it sat on the surface and then, slowly but perceivably, it started to sink.
Pony made a small puzzled noise. "Why isn't everything sinking?"
"I think—because they're all in the same space—which isn't quite here but isn't really someplace else—or maybe they're everywhere at once. The trees are stable, because to them, the earth underneath them is as stable as they are."
"Like ice on water?"
"Hmm." The analogy would serve, since she wasn't sure if she was right. They worked their way around the edge, the hilly terrain making it difficult. At first they found sections of paved road or cut through abandoned buildings, which made the going easier. Eventually, though, they'd worked their way out of the transferred Pittsburgh area and into Elfhome proper.
On the bank of a creek, frozen solid where it overlapped the affected area, they found a dead black willow tree, lying on its side, and a wide track of churned dirt where another willow had stalked northward.
Pony scanned the dim elfin woods for the carnivorous tree. "We must take care. It is probably still nearby; they don't move fast."
"I wonder what killed it." Tinker poked at the splayed root legs still partly inside the Discontinuity. Frost like freezer burn dusted the wide, sturdy trunk. Otherwise it seemed undamaged; the soft mud and thick brush of the creek bank had cushioned its fall so none of its branches or tangle arms had been broken. "Lain would love an intact tree." The xenobiologist often complained that the only specimens she ever could examine were the nonambulatory seedlings or mature trees blown to pieces to render them harmless. "I wish I could get it to her somehow."
The tracks of both trees, Tinker noticed, started in the Ghostlands. Had the willow been clear of the Discontinuity at the time of the explosion—or had the tree died after reaching stable ground?
"Let me borrow one of your knives." Tinker used the knife Pony handed her to score an ironwood sapling. "I want to be able to track the rate of decay. Maybe there's a way I could accelerate it."
"A slash for every one of your feet the sapling stands from the Ghostlands?" Pony guessed her system.
"Yeah." She was going to move on to the next tree but he held out his hand for his knife. "What?"
"I would rather you stay back as much as possible from the edge." He waited with the grinding power of glaciers for her to hand back his knife. "How do you feel, domi?"
Ah, the source of his sudden protectiveness. It was going to be a while before she could live down overestimating herself the night of the fighting. Instead of going quietly to the hospice, she'd roamed about, made love, and did all sorts of silliness—and of course, fell flat on her face later. It probably occurred to him that if she nose-dived again, she would end up in the Ghostlands.
"I'm fine," she reassured him.
"You look tired." He slashed the next sapling, and she had to admit he actually made cleaner, easier-to-see marks than she did, robbing her of all chance to quibble with him.
She made a rude noise. Actually, she was exhausted—nightmares had disrupted her sleep for the last two days. But she didn't want to admit that; the sekasha might gang up on her and drag her back to the hospice. That was the problem with bringing five of them—it was much harder to bully them en masse—especially since they were all a foot taller than her. Sometimes she really hated being five foot nothing. Standing with them was like being surrounded by heavily armed trees. Even now Stormsong was eyeing her closely.
"I'm just—thinking." She mimed what she hoped looked like deep thought. "This is very perplexing."
Pony bought it, but he trusted her, perhaps more than he should. Stormsong seemed unconvinced, but said nothing. They moved on, marking saplings.
With an unknown number of oni scattered through the forest and hidden disguised among the human population of Pittsburgh, Wolf did not want to be dealing with the invasion of his domi's privacy, but it had to be stopped before the queen's representative arrived in Pittsburgh. Since all requests through human channels had failed, it was time to take the matter into his own hands.
Wolf stalked through the broken front door of the photographer's house, his annoyance growing into anger. Unfortunately, the photographer—paparazzi was the correct English word for his kind, but Wolf was not sure how to decline the word out—in question was determined to make things as difficult as possible.
Over the last two weeks, Wolf's people had worked through a series of false names and addresses to arrive at a narrow row house close to the Rim in Oakland. The houses to either side had been converted into businesses, due to their proximity to the enclaves. While the racial mix of the street was varied, the next door neighbors were Chinese. The owners had watched nervously as Windwolf broke down the photographer's door, but made no move to interfere. Judging by their remarks to each other in Mandarin, neither did they know that Wolf could speak Mandarin in addition to English, nor were they surprised by his presence—they seemed to think the photographer was receiving his due.
Inside the house, Wolf was starting to understand why.
One long narrow room took up most of the first floor beyond the shattered door. Filth dulled the wood floors and smudged the once white walls to an uneven gray. On the right wall, at odds with the grubby state of the house, was video wallpaper showing recorded images of Wolf's domi, Tinker. The film loop had been taken a month ago, showing a carefree Tinker laughing with the five female sekasha of Wolf's household. The image had been carefully doctored and scaled so that it gave the illusion that one gazed out a large window overlooking the private garden courtyard of Poppymeadow's enclave. Obviously feeling safe from prying eyes, Tinker lounged in her nightgown, revealing all her natural sexuality.
Wolf had seen the still pictures of Tinker in a digital magazine but hadn't realized that there was more. Judging by the stacks of cardboard boxes, there was much more. He flicked open the nearest box and found DVDs titled Princess Gone Wild, Uncensored.
"Where is he?" Wolf growled to his First, Wraith Arrow.
Wraith tilted his head slightly upward to indicate upstairs. "There's more."
At the top of the creaking wooden stairs, there was a large room empty of furniture. A camouflage screen covered the lone window, projecting a blank brick wall to the outside world. A camera on a tripod peered through a slit in the screen, trained down at the enclaves. This room's video wallpaper replayed images captured this morning, a somber Tinker sitting alone under the peach trees, dappled sunlight moving over her.
Wolf moved the camera, and the device's artificial intelligence shrank Tinker's image into one corner and went to live images as the zoom lens played over Poppymeadow's enclave where Wolf's household was living. Not only did the balcony provide a clear view over the high stone demesne wall but into the windows of all the buildings, from the main hall to the coach house. One of Poppymeadow's staff was changing linens in a guest wing bedroom; the camera automatically recognized the humanoid form and adjusted the focus until she filled the wall. The window was open, and a microphone picked up her humming.
"I haven't done anything illegal," a man was saying in the next room in English. "I know my rights! I'm protected by the treaty."
Wolf stalked into the last room. His sekasha had broken down the door to get in. The only piece of furniture was an unmade bed that reeked of old sweat and spent sex. His sekasha had a small rat of a man pinned against the far wall.
On the wall, images of Wolf's domi moved through their bedroom at Poppymeadow's, languidly stripping out of her clothes. "You want to do it?" she asked huskily. Wolf could remember the day, had replayed it in his mind again and again as his last memory of her when he thought he had lost her. "Come on, we have time."
She dropped the last piece of clothing on the floor, and the camera zoomed in tighter to play down over her body. Wolf snarled out the command for the winds and slammed its power into the wall. The wall boomed, the house shuddering at the impact, and the wallpaper went black. Tinker's voice, however, continued with a soft moan of delight.
"Hey! Hey!" the man cried in English. "Do you have any idea how expensive that is? You can't just smash in here and break my stuff. I have rights."
"You had rights. They've been revoked." Wolf returned to the balcony and knocked the camera from its tripod. The wallpaper showed a somersault of confusion as the camera flipped end over end. When it struck pavement, it shattered into small unrecognizable pieces, and the wallpaper flickered back to the previously recorded loop of Tinker sitting in the garden.
"Evacuate the area," Wolf ordered in low Elvish. "I'm razing these buildings."
Apparently the man understood Elvish, because he yelped out, "What? You can't do that! I've called the police! You can't do this! This is Pittsburgh! I have rights!"
As if summoned by his words, a commotion downstairs announced the arrival of the Pittsburgh police.
"Police, freeze," a male voice barked in English. "Put down the weapons."
Wolf felt the sekasha downstairs activate their shields, blooms of magic against his awareness. Bladebite was saying something low and fast in High Elvish.
"Naekanain," someone cried in badly accented Elvish—I do not understand—while the first speaker repeated in English, "Put down the weapons!"
Wolf cursed. Apparently the police officers didn't speak Elvish, and his sekasha didn't speak English. Wolf called the winds and wrapped them about him before going to the top of the stairs.
There were two dark-blue-uniformed policemen crouched in the front door, keeping pistols leveled at the sekasha who had their ejae drawn. The officers looked human but, with oni, appearances could be deceiving. Both were tall enough to be oni warriors. The disguised warriors favored red hair while one policeman was pale blond and the other dark brown. The blond motioned with his left hand, as if trying to keep both his partner and the elves from acting.
"Naekanain," the blond repeated, and then added. "Pavuyau Ruve. Czernowski, just chill. They're the viceroy's personal guard."
"I know who the fuck they are, Bowman."
"If you know that," Wolf said, "then you know that they have the right to go where I want them to go, and do what I want them to do."
Bowman flicked a look up at him and then returned his focus on the sekasha. "Viceroy, have them put down their weapons."
"They will only when you do," Wolf said. "If you have not forgotten, we are at war."
"But not with us," Bowman growled.
Czernowski scoffed, and it saddened Wolf that he was closer to the mark.
"The oni have been living in Pittsburgh as disguised humans for years," Wolf said. "Until we're sure you're not oni, we must treat you as if you were. Lower your weapons."
Bowman hesitated, eyeing the sekasha as if he was considering how likely it was that he and his partner could overwhelm Wolf's guard. Wolf wasn't sure if Bowman's hesitation was born from overestimating his own abilities, or total ignorance of the sekasha's.
Finally, Bowman made a show of cautiously holstering his pistol. "Come on, Czernowski. Put it away."
The other policeman seemed familiar, although Wolf wasn't sure how; he rarely interacted with the Pittsburgh police. Wolf studied the two men. Unlike elves, where one could normally guess a person's clan, humans needed badges and patches to tell themselves apart. The officers' dark blue uniforms had shoulder patches and gold badges identifying them as Pittsburgh police. Bowman's brass nameplate read B. Pedersen. Czernowski's nameplate was unhelpful, giving only a first initial of N.
"I know you," Wolf said to Czernowski.
"I would hope so," the officer said. "You took the woman who was going to be my wife away from me. You ripped her right out of her species. You might think you've won, but I'm getting her back."
Wolf recognized him then—this was Tinker's Nathan, who bristled at him when Wolf collected his domi from the Faire. The uniform had thrown Wolf; he hadn't realized the man was a police officer. At the Faire, Czernowski had acted like a dog guarding a bone. Even though Tinker had stated over and over again that she was leaving with Wolf, Czernowski had clung to her, refusing to let her leave.
"Tinker is not a thing to be stolen away," Wolf told the man. "I did not take her. She chose me, not you. She is my domi now."
"I've seen the videotape." Nathan indicated the open box of DVDs. "I know what she is, but I don't care. I still love her, and I'm going to get her back."
"Who gives a fuck?" the thrice-damned photographer shouted behind Wolf. "It doesn't give these pointed-ear royalist freaks the right to break down my door and trash my stuff. I'm a tax-paying American! They can't—"
There was a loud thud as he was slammed up against his broken wall to silence him.
"Sir, can you step aside?" Bowman started cautiously upstairs before Wolf answered.
Wolf stepped back to make way for the two policemen.
The policemen took in the open window, the recording of Tinker in the garden, the smashed-down door, the broken wallpaper now stained with blood, and the broken-nosed paparazzi in Dark Harvest's hold.
"It's about time," the photographer cried. "Get these goons off me!"
"Please step away from him," Bowman told Dark, his hand dropping down to rest on his pistol. He repeated the order in bad Elvish. "Naeba Kiyau."
"He's to be detained." Wolf wanted it clear what was to be done with the photographer before relinquishing control of him. "And these buildings evacuated so I can demolish them."
"You can't do that." Bowman pulled out a pair of handcuffs. "According to the treaty—"
"The treaty is now null and void. I am now the law in Pittsburgh, and I say that this man is to be detained indefinitely and these buildings will be demolished."
"The fuck you are." Czernowski spat the words. "In Pittsburgh we're the law and you're guilty of breaking and entering, assault and battery, and I'm sure I can think of a few more."
Czernowski reached for Wolf's arm and instantly had three swords at his throat.
"No," Wolf shouted to keep the policeman from being killed.
Into the silence that suddenly filled the house, Tinker's recorded voice groaned, "Oh gods, yes, right there, oh, that's so good."
Bowman caught Czernowski as the policeman started to surge forward with a growl. "Czernowski!" Bowman slammed him against the wall. "Just deal with it! He's rich and powerful and she's fucking him. What part of this does not make sense to you? He drives a Rolls Royce and all the elves in Pittsburgh grovel at his feet. You think any bitch would pick a stupid Pole like you when she could have him?"
"He could have had anyone. She was mine."
"The fuck she was," Bowman growled. "If you'd scored once with her, all the bookies in Pittsburgh would know. You were always a long shot in the betting pool, Nathan. You were too stupid for her—and too dumb to realize that."
Czernowski glared at his partner, face darkening, but he stopped struggling to stand panting with his anger.
Bowman watched his partner for a minute before asking, "Are we good now?"
Czernowski nodded and flinched as Tinker's recorded voice gave a soft wordless moan of delight.
Bowman crossed to a section of the broken wall and pressed something and the sound stopped. "Viceroy, none of us like this any more than you do, but under international law, as of five years ago, this scumbag is within his rights to make this video."
"He's under elfin law now, and what he has done is unforgivable."
"Your people don't have technology capable of this." Bowman waved a hand at the wallpaper. "So you don't have laws to govern capturing digital images."
Wolf scoffed at the typical human sidestepping. "Why do humans nitpick justice to pieces? Can't you see that you've frayed it apart until it doesn't hold anything? There is right and then there is wrong. This is wrong."
"This isn't my place to decide, Viceroy. I'm just a cop. I only know human law, and as far as I last heard, human law still applies."
"The treaty says that any human left on Elfhome during Shutdown falls under elfin rule. The gate in orbit has failed; it is currently and always will be, Shutdown."
Bowman wiped the expression off his face. "Until my superiors confirm this, I have to continue to function with standard protocol and I can't arrest this man."
"Then I'll have him executed."
"I can put him in protective custody," Bowman said.
"As long as protective custody means a small cell without a window, I'll agree to that," Wolf said.
"We'll see what we can do." Bowman moved to handcuff the photographer.
Wolf felt a deep yet oddly distanced vibration, as if a bowstring had been drawn and released to thrum against his awareness. He recognized it—someone nearby was tapping the power of the Wind Clan Spell Stone. Wolf thought that he and Tinker were the only Wind Clan domana in Pittsburgh—and he hadn't taught Tinker even the most basic spells . . .
As the vibration continued, an endless drawing of power from the stones, cold certainty filled him. It could only be Tinker.
Tinker and her sekasha had neared the far side of the Ghostlands, crossing once again into Pittsburgh but on the opposite side of the valley. The road climbed the steep hill in a series of sharp curves. As they crossed the cracked pavement, Stormsong laughed and pointed out a yellow warning street sign. It depicted a truck about to tip over as it made the sharp turn—a common sight in Pittsburgh—but someone had added words to the pictograph.
"What does it say?" Pony asked.
"Watch for Acrobatic Trucks," Stormsong translated the English words to Elvish.
The others laughed and moved on, scanning the mixed woods.
"You speak English?" Tinker fell into step with Stormsong.
"Fuckin' A!" Stormsong said with the correct scornful tone that such a stupid question would be posed.
Tinker tripped and nearly fell in surprise. Stormsong caught Tinker by the arm and warned her to be careful with a look. Most of Tinker's time with Windwolf's sekasha had been spent practicing her High Elvish, a stunningly polite language. Stormsong had just dropped a mask woven out of words.
"For the last twenty-some years, I pulled every shift I could to stay in Pittsburgh—" Stormsong continued. "—even if it meant bowing to that stuck-up bitch, Sparrow."
"Why?" Tinker was still reeling. Many elves first learned English in England when Shakespeare still lived and kept the lilting accent even if they modernized their sentence structure and word choice. Stormsong spoke true Pitsupavute, sounding like a native.
"I like humans." Stormsong stepped over a fallen tree in one long stride and paused to offer a hand to Tinker; the automatic politeness now seemed jarringly out of place. "They don't give a fuck what everyone else thinks. If they want something that's right for them, they don't worry about what the rest of the fucking world thinks."
The warrior's bitterness surprised Tinker. "What do you want?"
"I had doubts about being a sekasha." She shrugged like a human, lifting one shoulder, instead of clicking her tongue like an elf would. "Not anymore. Windwolf gave me a year to get my head screwed on right. I like being sekasha. I do have—as the humans say—issues."
That explained the short blue hair and the slight rebel air about her.
Stormsong suddenly spun to the left, pushing Tinker behind her even as she shouted the guttural command to activate her magical shields. Magic surged through the blue tattoos on her arms and flared into a shimmering blue that encompassed her body. Stormsong drew her ironwood sword and crouched into readiness.
Instantly other sekasha activated their shields and drew their swords as they pulled in tight around Tinker. They scanned the area but there was nothing to see.
They were in the no-man's-land of the Rim, where tall young ironwoods mixed with Earth woods and jagger bushes in a thick, nearly impassable tangle. They stood on a deer trail, a path only one person wide, meandering through the dense underbrush. For a moment no one moved or spoke. Tinker realized that the birds had gone silent; even they didn't want to draw the attention of whatever had spooked Stormsong.
Pony made a gesture with his left hand in blade talk.
"Something is going to attack," Stormsong whispered in Elvish, once again becoming the sekasha. "Something large. I'm not sure how soon."
"Yatanyai?" Pony whispered a word that Tinker didn't recognize.
"What does she see?" Tinker whispered.
"What will be." Pony indicated that they should start back the way they had come. "We're in a position of weakness. We should retreat to—"
Something huge and sinuous as a snake flashed out of the shadows. Tinker got the impression of scales, a wedge-shaped head, and a mouth full of teeth before Pony leaped between her and the monster. The creature struck Pony with a blow that smashed him aside, his shields flashing as they absorbed the brunt of the damage. It whipped toward Tinker, but Stormsong was already in the way.
"Oh, no, you don't!" The female sekasha blocked a savage bite at Tinker. "Get back, domi—you're attracting it!"
A blur of motion, the beast knocked Stormsong down, biting at her leg, her shield gleaming brilliant blue between its teeth. The Blades swung their swords, shouting to distract the creature. Releasing Stormsong, the creature leapt to perch high up the trunk of an oak. As it paused there, Tinker saw it fully for the first time.
It was long and lean, twelve feet from nose to tip of whipping tail. Despite a shaggy mane, its hide looked like blood red snake scales. Long-necked and short-legged, it was weirdly proportioned; its head seemed almost too large for its body, with a heavy jawed mouth filled with countless jagged teeth. Clinging to the side of the tree with massive claws, it hissed at them, showing the teeth.
Its mane lifted like a dog's hackles, and a haze shimmered to life over the beast, like heat waves coming off hot asphalt. Tinker could feel the presence of magic on her domana senses, like static electricity prickling against the skin. The second Blade, Cloudwalker, fired his pistol. The bullets struck the haze—making it flare at the point of impact—and dropped to the ground, inert. Tinker felt the magic strengthen as the kinetic energy of the bullet fed into the spell, fueling it.
"It's an oni shield!" Tinker cried out in warning. "Hitting it will only make it stronger."
Stormsong got to her feet, biting back a cry of pain. "Go, run, I'll hold it!"
Pony caught Tinker by her upper arm, and half carried her, half dragged her through the thicket.
"No!" Tinker cried, knowing that if it weren't for her safety, the others wouldn't abandon one of their own.
"Domi." Pony urged her to run faster. "If we cannot hit it, then we have no hope of killing it."
Tinker thought furiously. How do you hurt something you can't hit but could bite you? Wait—maybe that was it! She snatched the pistol from the holster at Pony's side and jerked out of his hold. Here, under the tall ironwoods, the jagger brushes had grown high, and animals had made low tunnel-like trails through them. Ducking down, Tinker ran down a path, the gun seeming huge in her hands, heading back toward the wounded sekasha. The thorns tore at her bare arms and hair.
"Tinker domi!" Pony cried behind her.
"Its shield doesn't cover its mouth!" she shouted back.
She burst into the clearing to find Stormsong backed to a tree, desperately parrying the animal's teeth and claws. It smashed aside her sword and leapt, mouth open.
Tinker shouted for its attention, and pulled the gun's trigger. She hadn't aimed at all, and the bullet whined into the underbrush, missing everything.
As the beast turned to face her, and Stormsong shouted warning—a wordless cry of anger, pain, and dismay—Tinker realized the flaw in her plan. She would need to shove the pistol into the creature's mouth before shooting. "Oh fuck."
It was like being hit by a freight train. One moment the beast was running at her and then everything become a wild tumble of darkness and light, dead leaves, sharp teeth, and blood. Everything stopped moving with the creature pinning her to the ground with one massive claw. Then it pulled—not on her skin or muscle, but something deeper inside her, something intangible, that she didn't even know existed. Magic flooded through her—hot and powerful as electricity—a seemingly endless torrent from someplace unknown to the monster—and she was just the hapless conduit.
She had lost the gun in the wild tumble. She punched at its head, trying to get it off her as the magic poured through her. The massive jaws snapped down on her fist, and suddenly the creature froze—teeth holding firm her hand, not yet breaking skin. Its eyes widened, as if surprised to see her under it, her hand in its mouth. She panted, scared now beyond words, as the magic continued to thrum through her bones and skin. Her hand seemed so very small inside the mouthful of teeth.
A sword blade appeared over her, the tip pressing up against the creature's shields, aimed at its right eye. The tip slid forward slowly as if it was being pressed through concrete.
"Get off her," Pony growled, leaning his full weight onto his sword, little by little driving the point through the shields. "Now!"
For a moment, they seemed stuck in amber—the monster, Pony, her—caught in place and motionless. There came a high thrilling whistle from way up high, bursting the amber. The creature released her hand and leapt backward. She scrambled wildly in the other direction. Pony caught hold of her, hugging her tight with his free hand, his shields spilling down over her, encompassing her.
"Got her!" he cried, and backed away, the others closing ranks around them.
The whistle blew again, so sharp and piercing a sound that even the monster checked to look upward.
Someone stood on the Westinghouse Bridge that spanned the valley, doll-small by the distance. Against the summer-blue sky, the person was only a dark silhouette—too far away to see if he was man, elf, or oni. The whistle trilled, and, focused on the sound, Tinker realized that it was two notes, close together, a shrill discord.
The monster shook its head as if the sound hurt and bounded away, heading for the bridge, so fast it seemed it teleported from place to place.
The whistler spread out great black wings, resolving all question of race. A tengu, the oni spies created by blending oni with crows. Tinker could guess which one—Riki. What she couldn't guess was why he had just saved them, or how.
"Domi." Pony eclipsed the escaping tengu and his monstrous pursuer. He peered intently at her hands and then tugged at her clothing, examining her closely. "You are hurt."
"Yes." He produced a white linen handkerchief that he pressed to a painful area of her head. "You should sit."
She started to ask why, but sudden blackness rushed in, and she started to fall.
2: GO ASK ALICE
Tinker fell a long time in darkness.
She found herself at the edge of the woods near Lain's house, the great white domes of the Observatory gleaming in moonlight. The ironwood forest stood solemn as a cathedral before her. Something white flickered through the night woods, brightness in humanoid form. Like a moth, Tinker was drawn toward the light, entering the forest.
A woman darted ahead of her, wearing an elfin gown shimmering as if formed of fiber optics tapped to a searchlight—brightness weaving through the forest dimness. She was so brilliant white that it hurt to look at her. A red ribbon covered her eyes and trailed down the dress, bloodred against the white. On the ground, the ribbon snaked out into the distance.
It came to Tinker, knowledge seeping into her like oil into a rag, that she knew the woman and they were searching for someone. In the distance was a thumping noise, like an axe biting into wood.
"He knows the paths, the twisted way," the woman told Tinker while they searched for this mystery person. "You have to talk to him. He'll tell you how to go."
"We're looking in the wrong place," Tinker called.
"We fell down the hole and through the looking glass," the woman cried back. "He's here! You only have to look!"
Tinker scanned the woods and saw a dark figure flitting through the trees, keeping pace with them. It was a delicate-boned woman in a black mourning dress. A blindfold of black lace veiled her eyes. Tears ran unchecked down her face. At her feet were black hedgehogs, nosing about in the dead litter of the forest floor. In the trees surrounding Black and the hedgehogs was a multitude of crows. The birds flitted from limb to limb, calling "Lost! Lost!" in harsh voices.
"Black knows all about him." Tinker said. "Why don't we ask her?"
"She is lost in her grief," White breathed into Tinker's ear. "There is no thread between you. She has no voice that you will listen to."
The thumping noise came from the direction that they needed to head, speeding up until it sounded like helicopter rotors beating the air.
"Wait!" Tinker reached out to catch hold of White, to warn her. She missed, grabbing air. "The queen is coming. You've murdered time. It's always six o'clock now."
"We can't stand still!" White caught Tinker's hand and they were flying low, like on a hoverbike, dodging trees, the ground covered with a checkerboard design of black and red. "We have to run as fast as we can to keep in the same place. Soon we won't be able to run at all and then all will be lost!"
"Lost! Lost!" cried the crows and Black flew like a silent shadow on Tinker's other side. They had left the hedgehogs behind. The red ribbon of White's blindfold raced on ahead of them, coiling like a snake.
"He eats the fruit of the tree that walks." White stopped them at the edge of a clearing. The ribbon coiled into the clearing and its tip plunged into the ground. "Follow the tree to the house of ice and sip sweetly of the cream."
Feeling with blind fingers, White followed the ribbon, hand over hand, out into the clearing. The bare forest floor was black, and grew blacker still, until the woman was sheer white against void with red thread wrapped around her fingers. Tinker took hold of the thread and followed out into the darkness. Beyond the edge of the clearing, she started to float as if weightless. Tinker tried to grip tight to the red ribbon, but it was so thin that she lost track of it and started to fall upward. The woman caught hold of her, pulling her close, and wrapped the red thread tight around her fingers, making a cat's cradle. "There, no matter what, you can always find me with this."
Turning away, the woman pulled on the ribbon, and pearls started to pop out of the ground, strung on the thread. "It starts with a pearl necklace."
Tinker was drifting upward, faster and faster. Black and her crows flew up to meet her in a rustle of wings, crying, "Lost, lost."
Tinker opened her eyes to summer sky framed by oak leaves. Acorns clustered on the branches, nearly ready to fall. A cardinal sang its rain song someplace overhead.
With a slight rustle, Pony leaned over her, bruised and battered himself, worry in his eyes. "Domi, are you well?"
Tinker blinked back tears. "Yes, I'm fine." She sat up, trying to ignore the pain in her head. "How is everyone else?"
"Stormsong is hurt. We have called for help but we should start for the hospice in case it returns . . ."
"Its eyes are open," Stormsong said from where she lay on her side, a bloody bandage around the leg that the creature had bitten. "It's not coming back."
"What the hell does that mean?" Tinker asked.
"It means what it means," Stormsong groaned.
"There is no sign of the beast," Rainlily said.
"Okay," Tinker said only because they seemed to be waiting for her to say something. How did she end up in charge?
Almost in answer, a sudden roar of wind announced the arrival of Wolf Who Rules Wind, head of the Wind Clan, also known as her husband, Windwolf. Riding the winds with the Wind Clan's magic, he flew down out of the sky and landed on the barren no-man's-land of the Rim. He dressed in elfin splendor. His duster of cobalt-blue silk, hand-painted with a stylized white wolf, whipped out behind him like a banner. He was beautiful in the way only elves could be—tall, lean, and broad-shouldered with a face full of elegant sharp lines. With a word and gesture, he dismissed his magic. Released, the winds sighed away.
Beauty, power, and the ability to fly like Superman—what more could a girl want?
"Beloved." Windwolf knelt beside her and folded her into his arms. "What happened? Are you hurt? I felt you tap the clan's spell stones and pull a massive amount of power."
The "stones" were granite slabs inscribed with spells located on top of a vastly powerful ley line that the domana accessed remotely via their genome. Until Windwolf unleashed his rage on the oni, Tinker hadn't realized the power that the stones represented. In one blinding flash of summoned lightning, it suddenly became clear why the domana ruled the other elfin castes. Somehow, the monster had tapped and funneled the power through her.
"Oh, is that what the fuck it did to me?" And with that, she lost control of the tears she'd been keeping at bay. What was it about him that made her feel so safe in a way not even Pony could? She hugged him tightly, trusting he would make it right. As she wallowed in the luxury of being sheltered by the only force besides nature that seemed larger than herself, Windwolf turned his attention to Pony.
"Little Horse, what happened?" Windwolf's voice rumbled in his chest under her head, like contained thunder. "Is anyone hurt?"
"We were attacked by a very large creature." Pony went on to describe the fight in a few short sentences, ending with, "Stormsong took the brunt of the damage."
"We need to get her to the hospice." Tinker pulled free of Windwolf's hug, smeared the tears out of her eyes, and started for Stormsong. "The thing bit her in the leg."
Windwolf crossed to Stormsong in long strides, beating Tinker to the sekasha's side. The forest floor was annoyingly uneven; after stumbling slightly, Tinker slowed to baby steps. Pony hovered protectively close as if he expected her to pitch face first into the dead leaves. The big gray Rolls Royce they'd left on the other side of the valley and an ambulance had picked their way through the shattered streets to stop fifty-odd yards short of their location.
"Considering how fucked we were, I'm fine." Stormsong slapped Windwolf's hands away from the bloody bandage on her leg. "We didn't stop it—it just left."
Heat flushed over Tinker, and the sounds around her went muffled, as if someone had wrapped invisible wool around her head. It was dawning on her that she'd been stupid and nearly got them all killed. By returning to Stormsong, she'd pulled the other sekasha back to a fight that they should have lost. She should be dead right now. So fucking dead.
Stormsong glanced up at Tinker, frowned, and murmured something to Windwolf, giving him a slight push away from her. Windwolf looked up at Tinker and stood to sweep her off her feet and into his arms.
"Hey, I can walk!" Tinker cried.
"I know." He carried her toward the Rolls Royce. "I have seen you do it."
Tinker sighed at the nuances lost in the translation. This was how she ended up married to Windwolf—she accepted his betrothal gift without realizing he was proposing to her. "There is nothing wrong with my legs."
He eyed her bare legs draped over his arm. "No. There is not. They are very nice legs."
She studied him. All told, they had spent very little time with each other and she was still getting to know him. She was beginning to suspect, though, that he had a very subtle but strong sense of humor. "Are you teasing me?"
He said nothing but the corners of his eyes crinkled with a suppressed smile.
She smacked him lightly in the shoulder for teasing her. "You don't have to carry me!"
"But I like to."
"Windwolf," she whined.
He kissed her on her forehead. "You might think you are well, but you are in truth pale and wobbly. You have done what was needed. Let me care for you."
If she insisted on walking, she ran the risk of falling flat on her face. What harm could letting him carry her do, except to her pride? Like so often since he charged into her life, Windwolf left only bad choices for her to make in order to protect her sense of free will—and she was too smart to choose stupidity. Sighing, she lay her head on his shoulder and let him carry her.
He tucked her into the Rolls and slid in beside her. Pony got into the front, alongside the sekasha who was driving.
She noticed that her T-shirt was shredded over her stomach. Under the tattered material, five shallow claw marks cut across her abdomen; barely breaking the skin, the wounds were already crusted over with scabs. A fraction of an inch deeper, and she would have been gutted. She started to shake.
"All is well, you are fine," Windwolf murmured, holding her.
"I felt so helpless. There was nothing I could do to hurt it. I wish I could do the things you do."
"You can. I gave you that ability when I made you a Wind Clan domana."
"I know, I know, I have the genetic key to the Wind Clan spell stones." Which was how the monster sucked power through her. "What I don't know is how to use the spell stones. I want to learn."
"I was wrong not to teach you earlier." He took her hand. "I allowed myself to be distracted from my duties to you at Aum Renau; I should have started to teach you then."
"You'll teach me now?"
"Tomorrow we will start your lessons." He kissed her knuckles. "You will also have to learn how to use a sword."
"Shooting practice with a gun would probably be more useful."
"The sword is for your peers, not your enemies. Currently you have the queen's protection. No one can call insult on you or challenge you to a duel. But that protection will not last forever."
"Pfft, like random violence solves anything."
"True, it rarely does, but you need to know how to protect yourself and your beholden."
She made another noise of disgust. "What you elves—" She saw the look on his face and amended it. "—we elves call civilized. Can I still have the gun?"
"Yes, beloved, you may have the gun too. I will find comfort knowing you can defend yourself."
"Especially with a monster running around that sees me as some kind of power drink." She winced at her tone—he wasn't the one she was upset with.
"Reinforcements should be arriving soon, but until then Pittsburgh will not be safe."
"After you and Little Horse were kidnapped, I realized that there were more oni in the area than Sparrow previously led me to believe. I sent for reinforcements; the queen is sending troops via airship from Easternlands. They should arrive shortly. Unfortunately, this will pull the Fire Clan and probably the Stone Clan into the fight—which is why I'm thinking you should learn how to use a sword."
"Why is it a bad thing that other clans are going to help fight the oni? Isn't this everyone's problem?"
"We hold only what we can protect." Windwolf squeezed her hand; she wasn't sure if it was to comfort her or to seek comfort for himself. "By admitting that we need help, we have put our monopoly on Pittsburgh at risk. The other clans might want part of the city for services rendered in fixing this problem. The humans will fall under someone else's rule."
"You've got to be kidding! Why?"
"Because we cannot protect all of Pittsburgh from the oni. The crown will mediate a compromise."
"Couldn't your father, as head of the Wind Clan, have sent us help?"
"He has. He sent domana to Aum Renau and the other East Coast settlements. It is a great comfort to me to know that they are protected. The domana aren't that numerous, and the clans that can help are limited to those who have spell stones within range of Pittsburgh."
"This is all my fault," Tinker whispered.
"Hush, this battle is part of a war that started before even I was born."
She snuggled against him, logic failing to squash the guilty feeling inside of her. She was distracted, however, by something very hard under her. "Do you have something in your pocket? Or are you just happy to see me?"
"What? Oh, yes." Windwolf pulled a small fabric bundle out of his pants pocket. "This is for you."
"What's this?" Tinker eyed it tentatively. Accepting a similar package from Windwolf had indicated her acceptance of his marriage proposal—when she didn't realize the significance of his gift. She still had mixed feelings about being married to Windwolf. As a lover, Windwolf was all that she would want—warm, gentle, and caring wrapped in a sexy body—and she loved him deeply.
It was the whole marriage thing—having someone else's will and future joined to hers. They were building "their home" for "their people" and someday, maybe, "their children." Being the viceroy's wife, too, came with more responsibilities than she wanted; people were entrusting her with their lives. So far, the good outweighed the bad—but with elves "till death do us part" meant a very long time.
"Before the queen summoned me from Pittsburgh, I ordered clothes and jewelry to be made for you. I know that they are not of the style you might pick for yourself. It is important, though, that you look your best in front of the crown and the other clans."
"Okay." She pulled loose the bow and unwrapped the fabric. Inside were four small velvet pouches with drawstring pulls. She opened the first to the glitter of gems. "Oh!"
She gasped as she poured diamonds out into her palm. Over a foot of necklace studded with pea-sized diamonds. "Oh my! They're gorgeous!"
As she lifted them up, the afternoon sun prismed into a million tiny rainbows.
"They will look lovely against your skin." Windwolf dropped a kiss on her throat.
The second bag spilled rubies into her hand like fire, but as she lifted up the strand, it reminded her of the red ribbon in her dream. The third bag held a matching bracelet.
"They're beautiful," she said truthfully, but still put them away.
The fourth bag held a pearl necklace. She couldn't keep the dismay off her face.
"You don't like them?"
"I had a bad dream after the beast knocked me out. I was looking for something in a forest with this woman. She had a long red ribbon tied around her eyes and on the other end of it was a pearl necklace."
She'd wanted him to say, "It was just a dream," but instead he said, "Tell me all of your dream."
"Sometimes dreams are warnings. It is not wise to ignore them."
So she said, "It was just a dream." How could he rebuke her so easily with just his eyes? "I'm still me. I'm still mostly human—not elf. I would know by now if I had the ability to see the future."
"In elves it is carried by the female line; being that humans and elves can interbreed with fertile results, we must be very similar." He put away the pearl necklace. "It is the nature of magic to splinter things down to possibilities. Even humans without magic can see where the splintering will happen, and the possible outcomes. Humans call it an 'educated guess.' In the past, where magic would leak through natural gates from Elfhome to Earth, there were often temples with oracles predicting the future."
"So it doesn't matter if I'm mostly human or partly elf?"
"Tell me your dream." Windwolf ran the back of his hand lightly down her cheek.
So she described what she could remember. "Both women are someone I know but not really. Movie stars or something like that—I've only seen pictures of them."
"Both women wore blindfolds? The intanyei seyosa wears one when she's predicting. It helps block out things that would distract her from her visions, but also it is a badge of her office."
Tinker remembered then her one encounter with the queen's intanyei seyosa, Pure Radiance. The oracle had worn a white dress and red blindfold.
"So I'm dreaming that they're dreaming? That's very Escher-esque."
Windwolf looked confused.
"Escher is a human artist that my grandfather liked; his pictures are all tricks of perspective."
"Well, I don't. What does it mean?" She prodded the bags with a finger. "That you were going to give me jewelry? What is so dangerous about the necklaces?"
"Dreams are rarely straightforward. Most likely the necklaces represent something else."
"I do not know, but it might be wise to find out."
3: NUTS AND BOLTS
Wolf spotted Wraith at the fringe of the Ghostlands when he flew back to Turtle Creek. He'd left his domi in the care of his household at Poppymeadow's enclave and returned to help deal with the beast that attacked her. He dropped down to land beside his First.
"I don't know what Storm Horse was thinking," Wraith growled in greeting. "How did he end up with all the babies?"
Little Horse had chosen the five youngest sekasha to make up the Hand that accompanied Tinker into Turtle Creek; not one of them was over three hundred. True, any death would have been grievous, but to lose the five youngest would have been a blow to the close-knit band of warriors.
"They are the ones my domi is most comfortable with." Wolf knew that Wraith was truly rattled if he was using the nickname, as some of the "babies" were in truth older than Wolf. His First Hand didn't like to remind him that he was impossibly young for his level of responsibilities.
"Oni, they could have handled," Wraith allowed and then handed a sheet of paper to Wolf. "But not an oni dragon. I'm amazed any of them are still alive."
Wolf recognized Rainlily's fluid hand in the drawing. The low-slung creature looked like a cross between a ferret and a snake. "An oni dragon? Are you sure?"
Wraith clicked his tongue. "It's much smaller than the one we fought when we closed the gate between Earth and Onihida, and the coloring is different. It might be just a less dangerous relative, like we have the wyvern cousins to our dragons, or perhaps a hatchling. It would explain how they survived."
The oni war had been shortly before Wolf was born. A Stone Clan trading expedition had discovered the way from Earth to Onihida by accident. When the survivors managed to return to Elfhome with their tale of capture and torture, the clans united to send a force to Earth to stop the oni spreading from Onihida to Earth, and then, possibly to Elfhome. Wraith Arrow and others of Wolf's First Hand had been part of the battle.
"Are oni dragons that dangerous?" Wolf folded the paper and tucked it away. He would have to let the Earth Interdimensional Agency know of this new threat if they couldn't kill the beast quickly. The EIA could best spread warnings through the humans.
"We lost two dozen sekasha in the caves to the beast. We couldn't hurt it. It could—" Wraith frowned as he searched for a word. "—sidestep through walls as if they didn't exist, and it called magic like you do."
"How did you kill it?"
"When the Stone Clan pulled down the gate and the connection between the worlds broke, its attack pattern totally changed. It dropped its shield and became like a mink in a chicken coop, stupid with bloodlust. We boxed it in so it couldn't turn and we hacked it to pieces."
"Maybe the oni were controlling it magically. Little Horse said that the tengu used a whistle to call it off them—perhaps the sound only triggered a controlling spell. Earth doesn't have magic."
"So their control over it vanished and we were fighting the true beast?"
Wolf nodded. "Perhaps."
"So the key is to kill the controller first."
"Perhaps." Wolf didn't want to fall into a wrong mind-set. He crouched beside the torn earth and spilt blood to find the monster's tracks. They were as long as his forearm, with five claw marks splayed like a hand. Pressed into the dirt at the center of one track was one of Tinker's omnipresent bolts, a bright point of polished aluminum glittering in the black earth. It must have fallen from her pocket during the fight. Wolf picked it out of the dirt, realizing for the first time the size of his beloved compared to what had attacked her. Gods above, sometimes he wished her sense of self-preservation matched her courage; she couldn't keep leaping into the void and swimming back. One of these times, the void was going to drink her down. He rolled the bolt around his palm to shake off the dirt, thinking he should talk to her about being more careful, only he didn't want to fall into the trap of becoming her teacher.
Wraith crouched beside Wolf, and stirred his fingers through the dirt. "Domi showed great courage in protecting Little Horse. She needs, though, someone who can steer her away from the dangers. Little Horse is lost at summer court."
From Wraith's tone, the sekasha also thought that Windwolf was too deep in the first throes of love to think clearly. Perhaps he was. "Are you volunteering?"
Wraith tilted his head. "Do you want me to?"
Wolf considered, tumbling the bolt through his fingers. Wraith was not the first to come forward in the last two days and let him know that they'd be willing to change allegiance to Tinker. He'd given them all permission to advance their case to Tinker since she needed at least four more sekasha to make a Hand. Wraith, though, was his First, and Wolf depended heavily on him. Without Sparrow, losing Wraith would cripple Wolf. "No. I need you. Others plan to offer, she will have plenty to choose from."
"Yes, but will they guide her?"
Do I want her guided? That was the true question. He'd benefited greatly by choosing sekasha who had served his grandfather, but they had brought subtle pressure to bear on him at all times. This conversation itself was a perfect example of their influence on him. Their persuasion extended out to the rest of the household, reinforcing the caste differences so that Wolf was always correctly above everyone. When the queen summoned Wolf to Aum Renau, he'd left Little Horse behind to guard over Tinker. The youngest of the sekasha, his blade brother had also been raised in a household where the caste lines had been allowed to blur. Little Horse would be open-minded, affectionate, and the least likely to try and change Tinker. Wolf had hated the necessity to make her elf in body—he didn't want to force her, even by subtle persuasion, to become elf in mind and habit.
No, I do not want her guided in the way that Wraith would.
He would speak with Tinker, but not point her toward the older sekasha. He would allow her and Little Horse to find those they were most comfortable with.
"On this, I will act." He let Wraith know that the conversation was closed, that he would not discuss it farther. He turned his attention back to the oni dragon.
The main fight area was a chaos of torn earth and blood. The sekasha might be able to read the course of events, but to him it was only churned earth. The bark of surrounding trees was gouged in the dragon's five-clawed pattern.
"It had domi pinned. Little Horse attempted to penetrate its shield." Wraith pointed at a spot on the ground, and at the nearest scored tree. "It leapt to that tree. Rainlily said that the tengu was on the bridge, so that tree there"—Wraith pointed to a distant tree with claw marks halfway up the towering trunk—"is the next set."
The leap meant the creature was stunningly powerful without magic.
"Let's see where the trail leads."
The railing of the bridge was scored deep by the dragon's claws. After that, however, the track became impossible to follow with the naked eye. The sekasha considered the bridge deck, scuffing it with their boots.
"Too much metal." Wraith voiced the sekasha's collective opinion.
Wolf nodded; he'd thought as much. Using magic to track was rarely possible in Pittsburgh with its omnipresent web of metal in the roads, the buildings, and the power lines overhead.
There was whistle from the rear guard, indicating the arrival of a friendly force. Still, the a around him went alert when a limo belonging to the EIA pulled to a stop at the far end of the bridge. The oni had infiltrated every level of the UN police force; they could no longer automatically assume the EIA was friendly.
With a cautiousness that made it clear that he understood his position, Director Derek Maynard got out of his limo and walked the rest of the distance to Wolf. Apparently Maynard had spent the morning dealing with humans, as he was in dressed in the dark solid suit that spoke of power among men. Wolf thought it might be the way they perceived color.
"Wolf Who Rules ze Domou." Over the years, Maynard had picked up much of the elfin body language. He projected politely constrained anger as he bowed elegantly.
"Director." Wolf used his title without his name to mildly rebuke him.
Maynard bowed his head slightly, acknowledging the censure. He paused for a minute, nostrils flared, before speaking. He looked worn and tired. Time wore Maynard down at an alarming rate; in twenty short years he had gone from a young man to middle-aged. Gazing at him, Wolf realized that in a few decades he'd lose his friend.
If I could have only made him an elf too. But no, that would have destroyed Maynard's value as a "human" representative.
"Windwolf." Maynard chose to continue in English, probably because it placed him in the less subservient role. "I wish you would have warned me about declaring the treaty void."
Wolf sighed, it was going to be one of those conversations. "You know the terms. Pittsburgh could exist as a separate entity only while it continued to return to Earth."
"You've said nothing in the last two days about voiding the treaty."
"And I haven't said anything about the sun setting, but it has and will."
"The sun setting does not cut me off at the knees."
Wolf glanced down at Maynard's legs, and confirmed that they were still intact. Ah, an English saying he hadn't heard before. "Derek, pretend I don't understand human politics."
"The treaty is between the humans and the elves." Maynard followed the human tendency to talk slowly and in short sentences in the face of confusion. It made the time to enlightenment agonizingly long, even for an elf. "But the treaty is the basis for many agreements between the United States and the United Nations. It makes Pittsburgh neutral territory controlled by a UN peacekeeper force—the EIA—for the duration of the treaty."
"Ah, with the treaty void, Pittsburgh reverts to control of the United States."
"No?" Maynard looked confused.
"Pittsburgh now belongs to the Wind Clan, and I decide who will be my representative with the humans and I choose you."
Maynard took a deep breath as he pressed his palms together, prayerlike, in front of his mouth. He breathed out, took another breath. Windwolf was starting to wonder if he was praying. "Wolf, I thank you for your trust in me," Maynard said finally. "But for me to continue acting as director of the EIA, it would require me to disregard all human laws—and I cannot do that."
"There are no human laws anymore. Humans must obey elfin laws now."
"That's not acceptable. I know you're the viceroy, and as such Pittsburgh falls under your control, but the humans of Pittsburgh will not accept you unilaterally abolishing all human laws and rights."
"These were conditions agreed to by your own people."
"Well, shortsighted as it might have been, it was assumed that if something happened to the gate that Pittsburgh would return to Earth."
"Yes, it was." Wolf did not point out that humans were typically shortsighted, rarely looking past the next hundred years. "But we knew that sooner or later we would have to deal with humans wanting to or needing to remain on Elfhome."
"Yes, of course," Maynard said dryly. He gazed down at the blue paleness of the Ghostlands. "Is your domi sure that we're truly stranded? We're still a week before scheduled Shutdown."
"Something fell from orbit. She believes it to be the gate."
"But she could be wrong."
"Let us say that we wait a week to be sure before calling the treaty null and void."
"A week will not make any difference."
"Ah, then it will be no problem." Maynard spread his hands and smiled as if Wolf had agreed.
In that moment, Wolf could see the tactfully charming young officer he had hand-selected out of the UN security force to act as the liaison between human and elf. Maynard had been so young back then. Wolf smiled sadly. "And if I agree to a week?"
"During this week, we draw up an interim treaty that basically extends the original treaty."
"No." Windwolf shook his head. "We could create an interim treaty but the original treaty can not stand. It makes humans too autonomous."
"Pittsburgh has existed as an independent state for thirty years."
"No, not Pittsburgh, humans. All elves belong to a household and to a clan. They hold a very specific position within our society. They are responsible to others, and others are responsible for them. It's the very foundation of our culture, and if humans are to be part of our world, then they must conform to our ways."
"You mean—you want humans to form households? Set up enclaves?"
"Yes. It's imperative. All of our laws are structured on the assumption that the people under our laws are part of our society. You can't be as independent as most humans are and still be part of us."
They searched late into the evening but found nothing more of the dragon. Storm clouds had gathered throughout the day, and as dusk became night, it started to rain. Unable to track the dragon farther, Wolf and his sekasha returned to the enclave. He checked first to see how his domi was doing. Tinker lay in the center of their shared bed, a dark curl of walnut on the cream satin sheets. Wolf paused beside the footboard to watch his beloved sleep. Despite everything, he found great comfort in seeing her back where she belonged, safe among the people who loved her.
A saijin flower sat on the night table, scenting the warm air with its narcotic fragrance. Little Horse slept in a chair beside the bed. The hospice healers had stripped off his wyvern armor; fresh bruises and healing spells overlaid the pale circles of bullet holes from two days ago.
I almost lost them both to the oni, Wolf thought and touched his blade brother's shoulder. "Little Horse."
The sekasha opened his eyes after a minute, rousing slowly. "Brother Wolf. I only meant to sit down for a moment." He looked drowsily to the flower beside him. "The saijin must have put me asleep."
The narcotic was starting to color Wolf's senses with a golden haze, so he opened the balcony doors to let in rain-damp air.
"Are you well?" Wolf took the other chair, waiting for Little Horse to wake up from his drugged sleep, wondering if he'd made a mistake pairing his blade brother with Tinker. They were both so young to go through so much.
"I'm bruised, that is all." Little Horse rubbed at his eyes. "My shields protected me."
"I was thinking about the oni leader, Lord Tomtom, before I drifted off. He checked on our progress either at noon or at midnight. Some days he would make two inspections. It occurred to me that he was rotating between compounds, overseeing two or three of them."
"So the number of oni warriors in the area might be much greater than the sixty you counted?"
Little Horse nodded. "From what I observed, though, the warriors are like sea wargs." His blade brother named a mammal that gathered in colonies on the coast; the male animals fought to gather harems of females, and any cub left unprotected was usually killed and eaten by its own kind. "Command goes to the largest of the group and he rules by cruelty and fear. They fight among themselves, but I saw no weapon practice or drills. I believe that not one of their warriors would be a match for a sekasha."
"That is good to know." It backed what Maynard had told him at one point. Warned by Tinker, Maynard had begun to secretly sift through his people two months earlier. Using Tinker's description of "cruel and ruthless people with no sense of honor" he found the hidden oni fairly simple to find. So far intensive magical testing had proved his guesses correct.
Little Horse glanced toward the bed and a smile stole onto his face, making him seem younger still. "Despite their large size and savageness, she terrorized them."
Wolf laughed. Little Horse yawned widely, so Wolf stood up and pulled his blade brother to his feet. "Go to bed. The others can keep watch."
"Yes, Brother Wolf." Little Horse hugged him. It was good, Wolf decided, that he paired Tinker with his blade brother. They would protect each other's open and affectionate natures from the stoic older sekasha.
After steering Little Horse to his room, Wolf detoured to check on Singing Storm. He expected to find her sleeping when he cracked her door. She turned her head, though, and slit open her eyes. A smile took control of her face. Still she greeted him with a semiformal, "Wolf Who Rules."
He lowered the formality between them. It was her ability to see him as nothing more than a male that made him love her so. "How is my Discord?"
Her smile deepened. "Good and just got better."
"I'm glad." He leaned down and kissed her. She murmured her enjoyment, running her hands up his chest to tangle in his hair. She tasted candy sweet from her favorite gum.
"I've missed you," she whispered into his ear. She meant intimately, like this, because she had guarded over him every day for the last two months. Taking Tinker to be his domi, however, had meant an abrupt change in their relationship. They hadn't even had a chance to discuss it afterward.
She nipped him on the earlobe in rebuke. "No matter who, if they were the right one, you would have wanted this."
"It was graceless." He had given her only a few hours warning of his intention to offer for Tinker. She knew him well enough to know that he would want a monogamous relationship as long as Tinker was willing to give him one.
"When did we start to care about grace? Wasn't that the whole point of leaving court, all the false elegance? I like that we're honest with one another—and I like her—which is not surprising since I like humans."
"She's an elf now," Wolf gently reminded her.
"In the body, but not in the mind. She speaks Low Elvish as if she was born to it, yes, but she doesn't know our ways, Wolf. If you don't have time to teach her, then get her a tutor."
Wolf found himself shaking his head. "No. I don't want a stranger trying to force her into court elegance."
"Are you afraid that she will lose all that makes her endearing to you?"
Only Discord would dare to say that to him—but then—that was another reason he loved her. She would risk annoying him to make him face what needed to be faced. For her, he sighed and considered the possibility.
"No," he said after thinking it through. "Yes, I love her humanity and I'll mourn it if she loses it completely, but she is so much more than that."
"Then have someone teach her. She nearly got us all killed today because she couldn't bear to sacrifice me."
He knew better than to argue with Discord on that but was pleased with Tinker's decision. It was Tinker's courage and ability to pull off the impossible that had initially attracted him to her, and he would have been deeply saddened to lose Singing Storm. "I'm trying to find a solution to this. I know she needs to be taught our customs, but I don't want her to necessarily conform."
"I never said anything about conforming." Discord nuzzled into his neck. "Conforming is for chickens."
He laughed into her short blue hair. "That's my Discord." He kissed her and drew away to consider her. From her hair to her boots, Discord challenged everything elfin. Yet of all his sekasha, she was the only one that had grown up at court and had high etiquette literally beaten into her. There was no one more knowledgeable, yet less likely, to force those skills on Tinker.
"What is it that you want of me?" she asked.
"You know me too well." He tugged on her rattail braid. "I want you to keep close to my domi and be there when she needs guidance."
"Pony is her First." Discord switched to English, a sign that she wanted to be bluntly truthful. "I'll be stomping all over his toes. I don't want to piss him off. He's one of the few that never said shit to me about being a mutt."
"Pony is not the type to put pride before duty. He loves Tinker, but he knows that he doesn't fully understand her. He hasn't spent enough time in Pittsburgh, away from our people . . ."
"Like me?" It was a point of sadness between them. For decades they had ignored all the little signs that they could not be more than domou and beholden. The fact that she would choose Pittsburgh over being with him had made clear that while they were good together, they were not right.
"Like you." Wolf took her hand, kissed it, and moved on. "Humans are still mysterious to him."
She thought for a moment and then returned to Elvish. "As long as it does not anger Storm Horse, I will be there for her."
4: ON GOSSAMER DEATH
The next morning, shortly after dawn, the oni made their first attack. Wolf heard a muffled roar and then the loud anguished wail of a wounded gossamer. Luckily, his people were already awake and ready. Only Tinker, having been drugged the night before, still slept.
"Have Poppymeadow lock down the enclave," Wolf told Little Horse. "I'm leaving you just with her guards and Singing Storm. Everyone else with me."
Wolf arrived at the airfield, though too late to scry the direction of the attack. All he could do was watch the gossamer die in the pale morning light. The great living airship wallowed on the ground, its translucent body undulating in pain. The remains of the gondola lay under it, crushed by the massive heaving body. The clear blood of the gossamer pooled on the ground, scenting the air with the ghost of ancient seas.
"We can't get close enough to heal the wound." The gossamer's navigator was weeping openly. "Even if we could, I doubt we could save her. It's a massive wound, and she's lost too much fluid. My poor baby."
The gossamer let out a long low breathy wail of pain.
"Did you see where it came from?" Wolf wasn't sure what "it" was because none of the crew had seen the attack clearly.
The navigator shook his head. "I felt it hit before I heard anything. She shuddered, and then started to go down, and I jumped clear."
"Here comes another one!" Wraith shouted as he pointed at some type of rocket flashing toward them.
Wolf flung up his widest shield, protecting the crew and sekasha surrounding him. "Stay close!"
The rocket struck his wind wall and exploded into a fireball that curved around them, following the edges of his shield. The deflected energy splashed back in a wave of pulverized earth, like a stone thrown into mud.
A piece of metal skimmed overhead and struck the gossamer. The shrapnel smashed the gossamer sideways, blasting through the nerve center of the creature. The airship gave one last agonizing wail and collapsed.
Wolf shifted carefully to maintain his shield and did a wind scry. The scrying followed the disturbance of the rocket path through the air, making it visible to him. It pointed back to a window a few houses down from the paparazzi's spy perch. The Rim had razed all the buildings between the airfield and the street at the first Startup, so he had an equally clear shot back at the sniper.
Wolf summoned a force strike and flung it along the scry. The power arrowed away, plowing a furrow in a straight line to the human structure. The force strike punched its way through the building, reducing the structure instantly to a cloud of dust and a pile of rubble strewn into the alley behind it.
"Have someone escort the crew to safety," Wolf told his First. "The rest, come with me."
Maintaining his shield forced him to move slowly toward the human buildings, following the rut carved out by the force strike. The dust expanded, shrouding the area as he crossed the no-man's-land of the Rim.
"Keep the winds close," Wraith murmured as they reached the street. "There may be more than one nest."
Wolf nodded his understanding. The sekasha activated their shields and moved out of his protection. The house had been two stories tall. It made a large hill of rubble, capped by the broken rooftop. If there were any survivors, they'd have to be dug out.
Maynard emerged out of the dust, followed by a score or more of his people in EIA uniforms. All of the EIA were spell-marked, verifying that they were human.
"Wolf Who Rules." Maynard bowed and signaled his people toward the rubble.
"Maynard." Wolf nudged his shield slightly so it wrapped Maynard in his protection.
"What happened?" Maynard eyed the rubble as his people started to sift through it.
Wolf indicated the dead airship with his eyes; maintaining his shields limited his ability to motion with his hands. "Someone fired on what is mine. I returned fire."
Maynard glanced at the distortion around them. "How long can you keep up your shields?"
"There is no reason for concern." The Wind Clan's spell stones rested on a powerful fiutana that provided unlimited magic. "My gossamer is dead, but my crew is safe. For that I am thankful."
A call came from the EIA digging through the rubble. Most of the roof had been shifted off. In the debris of the second floor was a female huddled under a sturdy table. She appeared human, as small and dark as Wolf's domi. Old bruises, like purple and yellow flowers, marked her face and arms; someone beat her on regular occasions.
She gazed at Wolf with fear. "Don't let them have me! We're like cockroaches to them! Razing this neighborhood is just the start of them stomping us out!"
The human workers moved reluctantly aside to let the sekasha claim her. Wraith took out his leatherbound spell case, slipped out a biatau, and pressed it to the female's arm.
She whimpered and one of the watching EIA said, "It doesn't hurt. We've all had it done to us."
The simple spell inscribed onto the paper of the biatau was merely the first of the spells that the EIA had been subjected to, but it was the quickest and easiest to use as a first screening process. The oni had relied on an optical disguise spell that let them appear human; the biatau, when activated, would shatter the illusion and allow their true form to show.
Wraith spoke the verbal command and the spell activated. There was, however, no change to the woman's appearance.
Maynard sighed deeply, as if he saw all the dangerous complications that the woman presented. "She's human."
"Unfortunately." Wolf motioned that the EIA should take her prisoner.
"Here's another one," Bladebite called.
The second person was a large male, badly hurt. Wraith took out another biatau with the same spell and used it on the male. There was a ripple of distortion and the male's features shifted slightly to a more feral looking face with short horns protruding from his forehead.
"Oni." Wraith growled out the word.
"He's badly hurt," Maynard said. "The prison has a medical ward. We can take him there."
Wraith jerked the oni up onto his knees.
"Wolf," Maynard said quickly and quietly. "We have protocols on how prisoners are to be treated. The Geneva Convention states that the wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for."
"We do not accede," Wolf said, "to your Geneva Convention."
In one clean motion, Wraith unsheathed his sword and beheaded the oni.
The woman shrieked and tried to launch herself toward the dead body.
"Wolf, you can't do this!" Maynard growled.
"It has been done," Wolf said.
Maynard shook his head. "The treaty, which the elves signed, states that you will adhere to the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners."
"For human prisoners," Wolf said. "We will not take oni prisoners."
Maynard frowned. "That is the only option you're entertaining? A massacre of all the oni?"
"They breed like mice," Wolf said. "We do not fight for today, or this year, or even this century, but for this millennium—and to do so, we must be ruthless. If we leave a hundred alive, in a few years they will be several thousand in number, and in a thousand years, millions. We can not allow them to live, or they will crowd us out of our own home."
"You can't let the elves do this!" the woman wailed. "If we don't stop the elves, they'll turn on us next."
"It's their world." Maynard leveled his gaze and words at his watching men, aiming his words at them alone. "Not ours."
"It was their world!" the woman shouted. "We're stuck here now, so it's ours too."
There was a flaw in Maynard's logic. The old arguments that Maynard could have used to counter her were useless now. Her railing, unfortunately, could lead the humans to dangerous ground, so Wolf interceded.
"We are willing to share with humans. We do not wish to share with oni. A full contingent of royal troops is on its way to Pittsburgh. When they arrive here, their goal will be to find and kill every oni that ever set foot on Elfhome. My people have committed genocide before and have full plans to do it again. I strongly caution you not to put the human race between the royal troops and our enemy."
Whatever impact his words had, however, were lost when the woman suddenly looked past Wolf and shrieked. Wolf turned to see what she was focused on. One of the EIA workers had a small squirming creature in his arms. As the man neared, Wolf realized that the creature was a child, species so far undetermined, but human looking, perhaps four years old.
Wolf sighed. He had hoped it wouldn't come to this; that he would only have to deal with adult oni. Certainly among all of the elves, there were no children. In fact, he was fairly sure that—not counting his domi's unusual status—Little Horse was the youngest elf in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, when one could breed like mice, one did.
The name tag of the EIA worker holding the child read "U. D. Akavia."
"The child needs to be tested, Akavia," Wolf said.
Akavia's brown eyes went wide; he hadn't considered that the child was anything but what it appeared to be.
"No!" the woman sympathizer cried. "Don't give those monsters my baby!"
Akavia glanced to the woman and then down at the child whimpering in his arms. "She's just a little girl."
"We need to know if she is human or oni." Wolf tried to pose the statement in a nonthreatening way.
"She can't hurt anyone." Akavia covered the girl's small head with a protective hand. His eyes went past Wolf to the sekasha behind him.
Of course the human saw only the child, not the female that would be an adult in a decade, nor the army she could produce in the years to come. In truth, even to Wolf, she looked small and helpless.
"Let us test her," Wolf said. "If she is human, we will give her back."
Akavia's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "And if she's oni?"
Yes, Wolf thought as he scanned the hostile faces of the heavily armed EIA force that outnumbered his sekasha, that would be a problem.
He sensed the tension going through his sekasha, who were growing impatient. He had no doubt that his people would walk unscathed away from a fight with the EIA, but the EIA might not understand this, and he needed all the allies he could muster.
Maynard moved between Wolf and Akavia. Maynard's face set into hard lines, as if bracing himself for a fight. With Wolf or with his own people? "Let us test her."
He left unsaid: Let us at least find out if we have cause to fight. Wolf nodded. "That is acceptable."
"Uri David." Maynard motioned to Akavia. Wolf shifted his shields to include the EIA subordinate so Maynard could take the girl into his arms.
"Wraith." Wolf indicated that the sekasha was to hand Akavia the biatau.
Akavia placed the spell against the child's bruised and dusty arm. When the spell activated, there was no change to the girl's appearance. Relief went through the EIA.
"It proves nothing," Wraith growled. "It's probably mixed blood. The female has all but admitted that she's coupled with the monster."
Maynard's gaze skipped to Wraith and then came back to Wolf. Please, his eyes implored, let her go.
Wolf studied the child. She gazed at him with eyes as brown and innocent as his domi's. He didn't want to kill this child. Wolf steeled himself and forced himself to remember that an oni wouldn't waver in killing an elfin child or a human child. His people counted on him to do the right thing, no matter how difficult the right thing might be.
How could he winnow the monster from the human?
"Little one, what's your name?" Wolf asked the girl.
"Zi." The girl pointed to the woman. "Mommy's sad."
"Yes, she is. So am I." Wolf let his face show his inner sorrow.
Zi considered him gravely, and then leaned out to pat him gently on the cheek. "Don't be sad. Everything will be a-okay."
Wolf threw out his hand to keep the sekasha from reacting. "She has compassion; oni don't have that capacity."
Wraith slowly took his hand from his sword hilt. "So human empathy is a dominant trait?"
"So it seems." Wolf gave the girl a slight smile. "Yes, Zi, everything will be A-okay."
5: TREE THAT WALKS
The dying echoes of thunder pulled Tinker out of the dark sludge of drugged sleep. She opened her eyes to see shadows moving across an unfamiliar ceiling.
Where am I?
For one panicked moment, she thought she was back in the oni compound with the kitsune projecting illusions into her mind. She fought her sheets to sit up, heart pounding, to scan the luxurious bedroom. Saijin-induced sleep still clung to her like thick mud, making it hard to think. It took Tinker a minute of comparing all the various places she had slept in the last two months to finally recognize the room. It was the bedroom she and Windwolf had shared a month ago at Poppymeadow's enclave. She remembered now the massive four-poster bed, the carved paneling, and the view to the courtyard orchard. The window stood open to a warm summer morning, letting in air sweet with ripening peaches. Dappled sunlight played across the walls and ceiling. Tinker flopped back into the decadent nest of satin sheets and down pillows, tempted to go back to sleep.
But if she did, she'd probably have another nightmare.
Her groan summoned Pony from his attached bedroom.
"Good morning, domi."
Eyes still closed, she grunted at him. "It's not fair to expect me to be polite before I'm fully awake. Where's Windwolf? Did he get back safely last night?"
"He was needed at the Faire Grounds this morning. He took everyone except Stormsong with him."
"How is Stormsong?"
"Her leg bothers her slightly, but she is whole. She is practicing in the swordhall."
That was good news.
Tinker heaved herself back up and rubbed a heavy crust of sleep from her eyes. "Gods, I hate saijin. It turns my brain to taffy. What's that for?"
That being one of the sekasha's pistols. While the gun itself was of human make, the black tooled leather holster and belt were elfin. Pony laid it on the bed, a coil of dangerous black on the sea of cream.
"Wolf Who Rules wished you to have it."
Oh, yeah, I asked for a gun.
"It is specially made for the sekasha." Pony settled on the bed beside her. "Only parts of it are metal, and those are insulated with plastic, so they don't interfere with our shields. Once you learn magic, it will be important that you don't wear metal."
There was an elaborate system of wood buckles, D-rings, and ties to support the weight of the pistol on the hip without metal. In place of a metal snap, the belt maker had used a heavy plastic substitute.
"Is it loaded?"
"Not yet. I thought you would like to get comfortable with it first."
So they played with the gun. Taking it apart. Putting it together. Strapping on the holster (although it had a tendency to slide on her long silky nightgown.) Drawing the pistol smoothly. Holding it with both hands to keep it steady. Aiming it. And finally, loading and unloading it.
"Wolf Who Rules wants you to start the basics of the sword fighting," Pony said. "It would be unwise for you to wear a sword until you are able to use it. Guns are simple. Point and pull the trigger."
"I'm fine with that." She had no interest in swords. They relied too much on brute force. At five foot nothing, it didn't matter how smart she was, she wasn't going to win a sword fight with an elf. "Okay. I think I'm ready to face the day."
"In that?" Pony indicated her current nightgown and holster outfit.
"I thought I'd start a new fashion statement." Nevertheless, she started to look for the clothes she'd had on the day before. She was going to have to do something about clothes. After being kidnapped twice, she was left with only one T-shirt and one pair of shorts. Everything else in her closet was elfin gowns.
Pony guessed what she was looking for. "They took your clothes to be cleaned."
"Oh no." She went to the window and looked out. Beyond the orchard wall was the kitchen garden and the clothes lines. Windwolf's household staff was hanging up the laundry. Her jeans dangled between several pairs of longer legged pants. Her T-shirt? Oh yes, that had been cut to ribbons by the dragon. "Oh pooh."
Well, she could wear a dress and just go clothes shopping. Of course she didn't have any cash in hand, nor did she ever receive the promised replacements for the ID that the oni stole the night she saved Windwolf's life. It could be sitting in her mailbox back at her loft—if the EIA had been so stupid as to mail it out after she was kidnapped by the oni. Oh gods, what if she'd been declared legally dead after the oni "staged" her death?
She did have Windwolf's entire household at hand. Surely one of the elves was savvy enough to go to the store and buy her clothes. She considered the elves in the garden washing clothes—by hand—in large wooden tubs. Okay, she had clothes at her loft.
Was it a good thing or a bad thing that she was now fashion aware enough to know that those clothes were too scruffy?
Tinker sighed. "I really don't want to run around Turtle Creek in a dress."
"Domi, I would rather wait until we could gather a Hand. It would not be wise for us to go alone."
Tinker wasn't getting the hang of the elfin "we" despite having had Pony at her side every moment for nearly two months. She was thinking of just trotting over by herself and seeing how much the Ghostlands had shrunk. Well, she supposed that could wait.
She used her walk-in closet as a dressing room, stripping out of the gun belt and her nightgown. She considered her informal gowns, called day dresses. She had bullied the staff into taking off the long sleeves, but the dresses still had bodices that accented her chest, tight waists, and flowing skirts. Her choices were sable brown, forest green, or jewel red, all in gleaming fairy silk that clung to her like wet paint. The red one, at least, had pockets and a shorter skirt. She had to admit that she looked fairly kicky with her new gun belt riding low on her hip. She added her polished black riding boots and the ruby jewelry that Windwolf had given her. She practiced drawing her pistol and pointed it at the mirror. "You looking at me? Uh? You looking at me?"
"No, domi, I cannot see you," Pony said from the other side of the closet door.
She laughed, holstering the pistol. "Did Windwolf find the monster that attacked me and kill it?"
"Okay." She came out of the closet. "Since we can't do anything about Turtle Creek, let's focus on the monster."
"Domi, I do not think we should go after the dragon alone."
"It was an oni dragon and very difficult to kill."
"Well, yeah, which is why I should figure out how to kill it. The oni probably have more than one. There has to be a way to take down its shields so anyone with a gun can kill it."
Pony looked at her nervously, as if he suspected she was going to hunt down the oni dragon and poke it with sticks.
Tinker felt the need to reassure him that she didn't have anything that radical in mind. "I want to start with Lain; she's a xenobiologist. When you've got a problem outside your field of specialty, you go to an expert."
* * *
A flatbed semi trailer sat parked in front of Lain's stately Victorian mansion. A yellow canvas tarp covered something lumpy. The xenobiologist stood on the trailer, leaning on her crutch, watching Tinker park the Rolls. Something about Lain's face made Tinker suspect that somehow the trailer was her fault.
"I thought you might turn up today," Lain said.
"Well, apparently I need a small army to go back to Turtle Creek, and Windwolf has all the sekasha today except Pony and Stormsong."
Said sekasha had already split up into Blade and Shield. Stormsong had moved off to scout the area as a Blade. Pony trailed behind Tinker, acting as Shield.
"So, I thought I'd come talk to you about the monster that attacked me yesterday," Tinker said. "The sekasha are saying it's an oni dragon."
"Ah." Lain made a sound of understanding. "I suppose I should thank you for your present."
"Present?" Tinker eyed the trailer apprehensively. What had she done now without realizing it?
Lain flipped up one corner of tarp to reveal limp willowy branches. "They told me that you sent it."
The black willow! "He eats the fruit of the tree that walks." Tinker shivered as recognition crawled down her spine. It was just too weird having another part of her dream show up with her name attached to it. "I sent it?"
"That's what they told me," Lain said.
Tinker could remember finding the tree, but she—she didn't order this. Or had she? She turned to Pony. "Did I ask . . . ?" His look of concentration made her realize that she had been so rattled that she was still speaking English; she switched Elvish. "Did I ask to have the black willow brought here?"
"You said you would love to give it to Lain."
That apparently that had been enough of an order for Pony. Tinker really had to keep in mind that the sekasha took her word as law. While she had been smothered in attention, the elves had bound up the long limp branches and sturdy trunk-feet and hauled it to the Observatory. Once at Lain's, however, they'd abandoned it—trailer and all.
Lain had warned her once about elves bearing gifts. Tinker winced, realizing that she had become one of said elves.
"I'm sorry, Lain." She made sure she was speaking English, afraid that she might insult Pony for her own stupidity. "I didn't know they were going to bring it here and dump it on you."
"It's a matter of gift horses and teeth, I suppose." Laying her crutch down, Lain nimbly swung down off the trailer, her upper body muscles cording to make up for her weakened legs. On the ground, Lain reached up for her crutch, and then turned to rap Tinker smartly on the head with her knuckles. "Learn to think before you open that mouth of yours."
"Ow!" Tinker winced. "I'm bruised there."
"You are?" Lain tilted Tinker's head to examine her scalp, combing aside her short hair with gentle fingertips. "What from? That creature that attacked you?"
Lain smelt as always of fresh earth and crushed herbs and greens. "Ah, you'll live." She rubbed the sore area lightly. "Give the nerve receptors something else to think about."
Tinker mewed out a noise of protest and pain at the treatment.
Lain held her at arm's length then and looked down over Tinker, shaking her head. "I never thought I'd see you in a dress. That's a beautiful color for you."
Tinker showed off her rubies and her pistol, making Lain laugh at the contrast. "Do you want the tree?"
"A fully intact specimen? Of course!" Lain let her quiet scientific glee with the black willow show. "I saw my first black willow my first Startup; they flew me in on an Air Force jet to look at the forest where Pittsburgh had been the night before. I didn't want to come; I was still wrapped up in being crippled. Then I saw that wall of green, all those ironwoods as tall as sequoias. Out of the forest came a black willow, probably seeking a ley line, and the ground shook when it moved. God, it was instant nirvana—an alien world coming to me when I could no longer go to it."
A hot heady mix of delight and embarrassment flushed through Tinker; she wanted to hear more about how thoughtful she been, yet she knew how little she had actually contributed toward getting the tree moved. "I thought you might like it."
"I love it! But not necessarily here." Lain motioned toward her house. "I'm not totally convinced that the willow is dead. It might be just dormant after a massive system shock. I'd rather not have it reviving on my doorstep."
The tree that walks . . . "Yeah, that might be a bad idea. I can get a truck and move the trailer . . . someplace."
"What would be best is storing it at near freezing temperatures. The cold will keep it dormant if it's still alive."
Tinker eyed the fifty-three-foot semi trailer. "Well, getting it off the trailer wouldn't be hard—I can get a crane to do that—but shoving it into something refrigerated—that's going to be hard."
"I have faith." Lain limped toward her house, calling back. "I know you'll be able to figure it out."
Ah, the disadvantages of being well-known.
Stormsong was on the porch. She flashed through an "all clear" signal and indicated that she hadn't been inside the house.
"Let us clear the house first, domi," Pony said.
She wanted to whine, "It's just Lain's house." The sekasha had risked death for her, though, so she only sighed and sat down on the porch swing. "Can I have the willow cut up?"
"No," Lain said.
"I didn't think so. That would make life too simple." Tinker swung back and forth, the wind blowing up her skirt in a cooling breeze. "It would be easiest if we could keep the tree on the trailer and put it all into one large refrigerator. I could build one, but not quickly. Is there a large freezer unit that we can borrow?"
"There's Reinholds," Lain said.
"The ice cream factory?"
"I doubt they're using all their warehouses."
"That's true." The hundred-year-old company was one of the many Pittsburgh businesses that had survived being transplanted to another universe. Elves loved ice cream. Being stranded on Elfhome, however, limited Reinhold's production. Things such as sugar and chocolate all needed to be shipped in from Earth.
Pony reappeared at the door, and indicated with a nod and hand sign that the house was clean of menace. The sekasha took up guard at the doors, giving Tinker the privacy she was beginning to treasure so much.
It had been two months since Tinker had last been in Lain's house, the longest time in her life between visits. It was comforting to find it unchanged—large high-ceilinged rooms full of leather furniture, stained wood, leaded glass, and shadows.
Lain made a call to Reinholds to check on their freezer capacity. Apparently Reinholds shuffled her through various departments, as she repeated herself between long pauses. Tinker raided her fridge for breakfast. There were strawberries and fresh whipped cream, so Lain wasn't kidding when she had said that she'd expected Tinker to arrive.
The call ended with Lain hanging up with a sigh. "They have one large unit that has been shut down for some time. They're still trying to find someone that knows something about it; they'll call me back." She picked up the teakettle and limped to the sink to fill it. "You cut your hair again."
"Yeah, I cut it." It annoyed Tinker that her voice suddenly shook. When she had taken a razor to her hair, her oni guard had mistaken it for a suicide attempt; the following struggle came close to getting Pony killed. Immediately afterward, she had gone back to dipping circuit plates—it was stupid that tears now burned her eyes. She concentrated on stabbing a strawberry in the whipping cream.
"I know you hate it when people pry," Lain said quietly. "God knows, between myself, your grandfather, and that crazy half-elf Tooloo as role-models, it's no wonder you insist on keeping everyone at arm's length."
Tinker could guess where this was going. "I'm fine!"
Lain busied herself with teacups, the faint ring of china on china filling the silence between them. The teakettle started to rattle with a prewhistle boil. "God, I wish children came with instruction manuals. I only want to do what's best for you—but I don't know what that is. I never have."
"I'm fine." Tinker actually managed to keep her voice level this time.
The teakettle peeped, a final warning before a full scream. Lain turned off the fire and stood there a moment, watching the steam pour out of the shimmering pot. Taking a deep cleansing breath, she sighed it out and asked, "Lemon Lift or Constant Comment?"
"The Lemon Lift," Tinker said.
"The EIA made Turtle Creek off-limits when the fighting broke out." Lain moved the teacups carefully to the table, and changed the subject with equal deftness. "No one has been able to get down to look at these Ghostlands. What did you find?"
Tea was only a medium to transport honey, so while Tinker coaxed it to maximum viscosity, she told Lain about what she found.
"Can you fix it?" Lain asked.
"I'm a genius—not a god. I don't even know what it is. But by the laws of thermodynamics, it should collapse. I had Pony score the trees around the edge. Once I can go back into the valley, I'll check on the rate at which it's decaying."
Tinker sipped her tea and then changed the subject. "What I really came here to talk to you about is the monster that attacked me. It's an oni dragon."
"There were warnings on the television last night and the radio this morning. Yet another beastie for us to worry about."
Tinker knew that she shouldn't feel responsible—but she did anyhow. She had made the Discontinuity that the dragon had passed through to get to Pittsburgh. "The dragon generates a magical shield that protects it. According to Pony and Stormsong, Windwolf's First Hand fought one of these things nae hae."
The elf phrase, meaning "too many years to count," dropped out of Tinker's mouth like she had been born to the concept of living forever. She found it a little disturbing. "Apparently the shield also protects it from magical weapons like spell arrows. They think Windwolf will be able to kill it—but he can't be everywhere at once. We need a more mundane way of dealing with the beastie."
"Do you know if it's a natural creature or a bioengineered one?" Lain took out her datapad and opened a new file to take notes.
"No. The oni didn't mention anything to me about the dragon, and the sekasha don't know. What's the difference?"
"The result of creatures evolving in an environment full of magic is they often can use magic to their own benefit. Take the black willow; it's mutated from a tree with all the standard limitations to a highly effective mobile predator. By and large, though, the bioengineered creatures tend to be more dangerous than the randomly mutated creatures."
"Like the wargs?" Tinker knew that the wolflike creatures had been created for war but now ranged wild in the forest surrounding Pittsburgh.
"Yes. The wargs not only have the frost breath, but they show no signs of aging or disease and their wounds heal at a speed that suggests a spell somehow encoded at the cellular level. They're massive, intelligent, and aggressive in nature."
"So the question is, how much did the oni dragons get in their DNA gift baskets?"
"Yes. But let's start with the basics. We've never encountered an Elfhome dragon—we only know that they exist because the elves keep telling us that they do, and that we really don't want to study them closely."
Tinker laughed at that comment.
"Is this dragon mammal or reptile?" Lain asked.
"I'm not sure. It had scales, but it also had some sort of weird mane. It was long, and lean, with a big square jaw." Tinker put her hands up to approximate the size of the head. "Short legs with big claws that it could pick things up with."
Lain got up to put the teakettle back on the stove. "Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!"
It took Tinker a moment to identify the quote, a poem out of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
"We fell down the hole and through the looking glass."
The sudden connection with her dream was like a slap. White's face jolted into her mind again. With the addition of the book title, though, she remembered where she had seen White before.
"You know, I had the oddest dream about Boo-boo Knees."
Lain whipped around to face her. "Boo?"
"At least, I think it was Boo-boo."
"H-h-how do you know about Boo's nickname?"
"The picture. It has her name on the back of it."
"The one in the book." When Lain continued to stare at her in confusion, Tinker went to scan the bookcases until she found the book in question: The Annotated Alice. Complete in one book were both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass and What She Found There, with copious footnotes that explained layers upon layers of meaning in what seemed to be just a odd little children's story. Tinker had discovered the book when she was eight. Lain apparently had forgotten the photo tucked into the book, but Tinker hadn't.
It was an old two-dimensional color photo of a young woman with short purple hair. She hovered in midair, the Earth a brilliant blue moon behind her. She challenged the camera with a level brown-eyed gaze and a set jaw, as if she were annoyed with its presence. On her right temple was a sterile adhesive bandage. Written on the back was "Even in zero gravity, I find things to bang myself on. Love, Boo-boo Knees."
At the point Tinker had found it, she'd never seen a two-dimensional photograph; neither her grandfather or Lain were ones for personal pictures. From its limited perspective to the name of Boo-boo Knees, she'd found it fascinating. She stared at it until—ten years later—she could have drawn it from memory.
The picture was where she had carefully returned it, marking the place where one story ended and another started.
"Oh!" Lain took the photo. "I'd forgotten about that."
"Who is she?" Why am I dreaming about her? Tinker flipped through the book, remembering now forgotten passages echoing back from the dream. The tea party with the Mad Hatter murdering time, leaving his watch stuck at six o'clock. The checkerboard layout that they had flown over. Alice and the Red Queen hand in hand, like Tinker and White had been in the dream, racing to stay in place.
"That's Esme." Lain identified White as her younger sister.
"It is?" Tinker reclaimed the photo. She had always imagined Esme as a younger version of Lain, but Esme looked nothing like her. Come to think of it—Tinker had never seen a picture of Esme before, not even her official NASA mission photo.
"I'm not surprised you're dreaming of her," Lain was saying as Tinker continued to search the photo for the cause of her dreams. "You're bound to be upset about the gate and the colonists."
Was that the true reason? The dream seemed so real compared to the rest of her nightmares. She didn't know Boo-boo Knees was Lain's sister, and Lain had many retired astronauts as friends, so Tinker had had no reason to assume that this was a picture of a colonist. And why all the Alice in Wonderland references? Were they just reminders of where the photo was stored—or that the colonist had dropped into a mirror reflection of Earth? Certainly there was nothing to say that Earth had only two reflections: Elfhome and Onihida.
"Lost, lost," the crows had cried.
According to Riki, the first colony ship, the Tianlong Hao, was crewed entirely by tengu. If Black was a tengu female, that would explain the crows—but what about the hedgehogs? Tinker flipped through the book, found a picture of Alice with a flamingo and a hedgehog. The queen was screaming, "Off with his head!" Was this some oblique reference to the queen of the elves?
"Oh, this is going to give me a headache," Tinker murmured.
Down the hall, the phone rang. Lain gave her an odd, worried look and went to answer it.
Tinker found herself alone with the photograph of Lain's younger sister, looking defiantly out at her. "Why am I dreaming of you? I don't know where you are. I don't know how to save you. Hell, I don't even know how to save Pittsburgh."
Lain limped back into the kitchen. "That was Reinholds. The freezer in question is shut down because the compressor needs to be repaired. They said if I have someone repair the unit, we could store the tree there. They'll even throw in some free ice cream."
"He eats the fruit of the tree that walks," Tinker suddenly remembered all of what White—Esme—had said. "Follow the tree to the house of ice and sip sweetly of the cream."
"I'll go look at the compressor." Tinker kept hold of the book. She had a bad feeling she was going to reread the silly thing. "And see if I can fix it. I think I have to do this. Can you do me a favor in the meantime? See if you can find out anything about this oni dragon." Tinker described the magical shield that the dragon generated. "If we have to fight it again, I want to be able to hurt it."
6: LIVELY MAPLE FLAVOR
For years, Tinker had thought of herself as famous. The invention and mass production of the hoverbike made Tinker's name well-known even before she started to race. True, few people realized that the girl in the "Team Tinker" shirt was the famed inventor/racer; still, she often got a reaction when she introduced herself.
But she wasn't prepared for the welcome she received at the Reinholds' offices.
The receptionist looked up as Tinker and her bodyguards entered. "Can I help . . ." the woman started, and then her gaze shifted from Pony to Tinker, and her question ended in a high squeal that drew everyone's eyes. "Oh, my god! Oh, my god! It's the fairy princess!"
Tinker glanced over her shoulder, hoping that there would be a female in diaphanous white behind her. No such luck. "Pardon?"
"You're her!" The woman jumped up and down, hands to her mouth. "You're Tinker, the fairy princess!"
Other office people came forward. One woman had a slickie in hand, which she held out with a digital marker. "Can you autograph this for me, Vicereine?"
Vice-what? Tinker felt a smile creeping onto her face in response to all the brightly smiling people gathering around her. The slickie was titled, Tinker, the New Fairy Princess. The cover photo was of Tinker, a crown of flowers disguising her haphazard haircut, looking fey and surprisingly pretty.
"What the hell?" Tinker snatched the slickie from the woman. When in god's name was this taken? And by whom?
She thumbed the page key, flipping through the pictures and text. The first half-dozen photographs were of Windwolf, taken across seasons and at various locations, looking studly as usual. The text listed out Windwolf's titles—viceroy, clan head for Westernlands, cousin to the queen—and added Prince Charming.
"Oh, gag me." She flipped on and found herself. It was a copy of the front cover. When was it taken? She couldn't remember any time appearing in public with a crown of flowers. The only time she had flowers in her hair like this was . . .
Oh, no! Oh, please, no. She frantically flipped on, hoping that she was wrong. Two more head shots, and then there it was—her in her nightgown, the one that looked like cream poured over her naked body. Oh, someone was so dead meat.
The morning after returning from the queen's court, she had breakfasted in the private garden courtyard of Poppymeadow's enclave. She had been alone with the female sekasha—and some pervert with telephoto lens. Thankfully, because of the distance involved, the photo was 2-D with limited pan and zoom features.
"Can you sign it, Vicereine?" the owner of the digital magazine asked.
"Sign?" Tinker slapped the slickie to her chest—she didn't even want to give it back.
The woman held out her marker. "Could you make it out to Jennifer Dunham?"
Tinker stared at the marker, wondering what to do. Certainly she couldn't ask her bodyguards—she suspected that they would not take the invasion of her privacy well. Not that the picture was all that indecent, but more that they had failed to protect her. She fumbled with getting the slickie back to its cover picture without flashing it at her bodyguards, scribbled her name in the corner, and thrust it back.
"I'm here about the broken freezer unit that Lain Shanske called about." Time to escape to something simple, understandable, and easily fixed. This freezer repair sounded like a good greasy project to let her forget all the big, unsolvable problems. "You said that if it was fixed, she could use it."
"That was me that she talked to." One man separated himself from the crowd. "Joseph Wojtowicz, you can call me Wojo, most people do. I'm the general manager here." Halfway through his handshake, he seemed to think he'd made a blunder in etiquette and bowed over her hand. "Yes, if you can get the unit working, she's more than welcome to it."
"Well, let's go see it." Tinker indicated that they should go out of the office, away from the crowd of people who were showing signs of producing cameras. "I want to see if it's actually big enough to hold the tree."
Thus they managed to escape, no picture taken, through the offices and to a backstreet. Stormsong led the way, moving through the maze of turns as if she worked at the offices. Pony trailed behind, keeping back the curious office staff with dark looks.
"I heard about the monster attacking you yesterday." Wojo didn't seem to notice her sekasha, focusing only on Tinker as they rounded a corner and took a short flight of cement steps up onto a loading dock. "Are you okay? It sounds like you had a nasty fight on your hands."
Gods, first Lain and now him. How many people had heard about the fight at Turtle Creek? "I'm fine."
"That's good! That's good! I knew your grandfather, Tim Bell. He was—" Wojo paused to consider a polite way to describe her grandfather. "—quite a character."
"Yeah, he was."
"This is it, here." He stopped before a large door padlocked shut. He pulled out a key ring and started to sort through the keys. "It was our main building before Startup. After that, it was so unpredictable that we only used it for overflow. Four years ago, we stopped being able to use it at all."
By Startup, he meant the first time Pittsburgh went to Elfhome. In typical fashion, Pittsburghers used Startup to mean that first time, and each consecutive time, after Shutdown returned Pittsburgh to Earth. Shutdown itself was a misnomer because the gate never fully shut down, only powered down sharply, a fact that she had counted on when she set out to destroy it. The oni could have stopped the resonance only by completely shutting off the orbital gate, something it wasn't designed to do easily. The poor crew that maintained the gate probably had no clue what was happening or how to stop it. Tinker tried not to think of the poor souls trying to save themselves before the gate shook itself to pieces. Had they abandoned the structure? Were there ships in orbit around Earth that could rescue them? Or had they, too, phased into space over Elfhome, doomed to rain down with the fiery pieces of the gate?
I've killed people, she thought with despair, and I don't even know how many, or what race they belonged to.
"Well, I'll be damned." Wojo turned away from the door, frowning at his key ring as if it had failed him. "None of these keys fit the lock. I guess the key was taken off this ring when we stopped using the building. I'll be right back."
Pony and Stormsong were conferring in whispers. Tinker caught enough to realize that Stormsong was translating for Pony. Was having her sekasha understand everything worth the convenience of not having to repeat herself?
A slight chiming caught Tinker's attention. Across the street sat a small shrine to a local ley god, its prayer bells ringing in the slight breeze.
The gods of the ley were all faces of the god of magic, Auhoya, the god of chaos and plenty. Tinker was never sure how he could be many different gods and yet still be one individual, but she'd learned that with gods, one didn't try to understand like one would with science. They were. Auhoya was shown always with a horn and a two edged-sword. She supposed in some ways, magic was a lot like science, used to make or destroy.
She clapped her hands to call the gods attention to her, bowed low, and added a silver dime to the hoarde already littering the shrine.
"Help me to make things right." Adding a second dime, she whispered, "Help me to never mess up this badly again."
"Tinker ze domi," someone said behind her, using the formal form of her title.
She turned and found Derek Maynard, head of the EIA, standing behind her. If Windwolf was prince of the Westernlands, then Director Maynard was prince of Pittsburgh. Certainly, there was a similarity in their appearance, as Maynard was elf-tall and elf-stylish. He kept his hair in a long, blond braid and wore a painted silk duster, and tall, polished boots. She noted that while he was primarily in white, his accents—earrings, waistcoat, and duster—were all Wind Clan blue.
"Maynard? You're about the last person I expected to run into here. Is the EIA out of ice cream?"
"I'm here to see you." Maynard bowed elegantly, weirding her out. For years she had been terrified of the EIA, and now its director was treating her like a princess.
"Me?" To her annoyance, the word came out as a squeak. Obviously, someone wasn't completely over her fear.
"I heard of the attack on you yesterday . . ."
"Hell, does everyone in Pittsburgh know about that?"
"Possibly. It made the newspaper. How are you feeling?"
"I wish people would stop asking."
"Forgiveness." He swept a critical gaze down over her, taking in her silk dress, black leather gun belt, and polished riding boots. "I am glad to see you well."
"You chased me down just to see how I was?"
"Yes." He motioned toward the shrine. "Did you convert after Windwolf made you an elf?"
"I was raised in the religion," she said. "My grandfather was an atheist or agnostic, depending on his mood. Tooloo often babysat me when I was a child; she thought if I wasn't watched over by human gods, I should be protected by elfin ones."
"Has anyone ever taught you about human religion?"
"Grandpa taught us to exchange Christmas presents, and Lain lights candles at Hanukkah."
"Lain Shanske? I take it that she's Jewish."
"By blood, although not totally by faith. It seems a weird compulsion that she fights, like she doesn't want to believe, saying she's not going to do Hanukkah, but at the last minute, she pulls out the candles and lights them."
Maynard nodded, as if Lain's behavior wasn't bizarre. "I understand."
"I don't. If you try to talk to her about the Jewish God—one minute she's saying that her god is the only true god, and the next minute, she'll be telling me that scientifically, her creation story is impossible. It's like she wants me to know her religion, but doesn't want me to believe it, because she doesn't believe it—but she does."
"Things that you're told as a child—your fear, your religion, your bigotry—become so much a part of you that's it hard to remove them when you grow to be an adult. Sometimes you don't realize such things are there until the moment of truth, and then they're suddenly as impossible to miss as a third arm, and as hard to cut off."
"You talk like you've been through it."
"There have been a few times when all I could do was kiss dirt and pray."
Stormsong scoffed, reminding Tinker that this wasn't a private conversation. On the heels of that, she remembered that this was the second most important person in Pittsburgh after Windwolf—and he had come looking for her.
"You didn't come here to ask me about my religion."
"Actually, in a way, I had," Maynard said. "You do realize that Pittsburgh's treaty with the elves is now null and void?"
"No. Why would it be void?"
"The basic underlying principle of the treaty is that Pittsburgh was a city of Earth only temporarily visiting Elfhome. Every article was written with the idea that humans would and could return to Earth."
"Shit! Okay, I didn't realize that." She frowned at him, wishing she wasn't so tired. Surely this conversation had to be making some kind of sense, but she was missing the connection. What did her religion have to do with the treaty?
"Little one." Stormsong took out a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and offered Tinker a piece. "He wants to know how human you are after everyone has had a chance to fuck your brain over for the last few months. He needs your help but he doesn't know if he can trust you."
Ooooh. Tinker took the gum to give herself a moment to think.
"Succinct as ever, Stormsong." Maynard also accepted a piece.
"That's why you love me." Stormsong stepped back out of the conversation, becoming elfin again.
The last time Tinker remembered talking with Maynard was before she'd been summoned by the queen. She'd warned him about the oni. Slowly unwrapping the gum, she tried to remember if she had seen Maynard after that. No, the oni had kidnapped her while she was on her way to see him. Yeah, she could see why he might be concerned she'd been somehow—damaged.
That still begged the question of what the hell he expected her to do in regard of negotiating a new treaty. As a business owner, she found all of the regulations set up in the original one to be baffling, perplexing, mystifying, bewildering . . . and any other word that meant confusing.
"Look, I can help with junkyards, hoverbike racing, and advanced physics." She sighed and put the gum in her mouth. For a moment the taste—not Juicy Fruit as she remembered but something similar, only a hundred times better—distracted her. It was like getting kicked in the mouth. "Wow." She checked the bright yellow wrapper in her hand. Oh yes, she was an elf now, and things tasted different.
Maynard was frowning, waiting for her to finish her point.
"Um—" What had she been saying? Oh yes, her areas of expertise. "But I've discovered that I know very little about anything else."
"You're Windwolf's domi."
"And this makes me an expert on—what? I don't know you well enough to discuss my sex life and quite frankly, the only place I get to see my husband is in bed."
"Whether you like it or not, ze domi, that makes you a player in Pittsburgh. There are sixty thousands humans that need you on their side."
"Fine, I'm on their side. Rah, rah, rah! That still doesn't give me a clue on how to help. Fuck, I tried to help the elves and look at the mess I made. You can't screw up much more than Turtle Creek."
"A lot of elves see this as a win-win situation. If you had permanently returned Pittsburgh back to Earth, it would have been perfect."
"Some of us would have been pissed," Stormsong said.
Maynard gave Stormsong a look that begged her to be quiet.
"Look," Tinker said. "If shit hits the fan, I promise I will move heaven and earth to protect the people of this city, but I am not a political animal. At this point in time, I don't even want to try to tackle anything that can't be solved with basic number crunching."
Maynard was still gazing at Stormsong, but in a more intent fashion now. Stormsong wore an odd stunned look, like someone had hit her with a cattle prod.
"Stormsong?" Tinker scanned the area, looking for danger.
"You will," Stormsong murmured softly in a voice that put chills down Tinker's spine.
"I will what?" Tinker shivered off the feeling.
"Move heaven and earth to protect what you love," Stormsong whispered.
"What the hell does that mean?" Tinker asked.
Stormsong blinked and focused on Tinker. "Forgiveness, ze domi," she said in High Elvish, disappearing behind her most formal mask. "My ability is erratic and I'm untrained. I—I am not certain . . ."
"If that's the case, I'm satisfied." Maynard acted as if Stormsong had said something more understandable. "Forgiveness, ze domi, I must take my leave. Nasadae."
"Nasadae," Tinker echoed, mystified. What the fuck just happened? Maynard bowed his parting. Stormsong had gone into sekasha mode. And the conversation had been in English, so asking Pony would be pointless.
Wojo returned with the keys. "I see you've found the cause of all our problems." He indicated the shrine marking the ley line. "As soon as the magic seeped into the area after the first Startup, the whole unit went whacky. It was the weirdest thing I'd ever seen—including waking up the day before."
"Huh?" She was having trouble switching gears. That's it, I won't fight any monsters today and will go to bed early.
Wojo misunderstood her grunt of confusion. "I lived out in West View right on the Rim—almost didn't come with the rest of the city. My place looked down on I-279. Every morning, I'd get up, have coffee, and check traffic out my back window. That first Startup, I looked out, and there was nothing but trees. I thought maybe I was dreaming. I actually went and took a cold shower before going back and looking again."
Tinker added a shower and maybe a nightcap to her "must get sleep" list—if she could find either.
"I never realized how noisy the highway was until afterward," Wojo continued blithely. "When the forest is still, it's absolute quiet, like the world is wrapped in cotton. And the wind through the trees—that green smell—I just love it."
Tinker bet Stormsong would know where to find booze and hot water.
"But between the wargs, the saurus, and the black willows, West View was just too isolated—I was way out past the scientist commune on Observatory Hill. It's all ironwood forest now. I have a nice place up on Mount Washington, beautiful view of the city, and it's much safer up there. And hell, with gas prices what they are, it makes sense to take the incline down the hill and take the light rail over."
"Yeah, yeah," Tinker agreed to shut him up and indicated the door. "Let's see what you have."
Wojo unlocked the padlock, freed it from the bolt, and opened the door.
Before her transformation, ley lines seemed nearly mystical—lines of force running like invisible rivers. The little shrines erected by the elves on strong ley lines served as the only warning for why the normal laws of physics would suddenly skew off in odd directions, as the chaos of magic was applied to the equation. "I hit a ley" embedded itself into the Pittsburgh language, blaming everything from acts of nature to bad judgment on the unseen presence.
But now, as a domana, she could see magic. The door swung open to reveal a room filled with the shimmer of power.
"Sweet gods," she breathed, earning a surprised look from Wojo and making the sekasha move closer to her.
The magic flowed at a purple on the far end of the visible spectrum, lighting the floor to such near-invisible intensity that it brought tears to her eyes. The high ceiling absorbed most of that light, so it stayed cloaked in shifting shadows. Heat spilled out of the room, flushing her to fever hot, and seconds later, the sense of lightness seeped up her legs, slowly filling her until she felt like she would float away.
"What?" Wojo asked.
"It's a very strong ley line," Tinker said.
Wojo made a slight surprised hrumpf to this.
She considered what she was wearing. An active spell with this much force behind it, snarled by something metal on her, could be deadly. She wasn't sure how dangerous this much latent magic might pose. "You might want to empty your pockets."
She pulled off her boots, emptied her pockets into them, and took off her gun belt. Since the sekasha caste couldn't sense magic, she told Pony and Stormsong, "This ley seems almost as strong as the spell stones."
"The shrine indicates a fiutana," Pony explained. "Like the one that the spell stones are built on."
"What's that?" Tinker asked.
Pony explained, "A single point where magic is much stronger than normal, welling up, like spring waters."
"If you're coming in," she told the two warriors, "strip off all metal. And I mean all."
The sekasha started paper, scissors, stone to see which was going in, and which would stay behind with the weapons.
There was a light switch by the door; Tinker cautiously flipped it on, but nothing happened.
"Lightbulbs pop as soon as you carry them into the room," Wojo explained, "so we stopped installing them."
"We need a light source shielded from magic." Tinker flipped the switch back to off. "I don't think even a plastic flashlight would work."
"No, they pop too." Wojo took out two spell lights and held out one to her. "These are safe, but you'll want to watch—they're really bright."
With this much magic around, that wasn't surprising.
She wrapped her hand tight around the cool glass orb before activating it. Her fingers gleamed dull red, her bones lines of darkness inside her skin. Carefully, she uncovered a fraction of the orb, and light shafted out a painfully brilliant white.
Stormsong won paper, scissors, stone and opted for coming inside. She ghosted into the room ahead of Tinker, her shields outlining her in blue brilliance, her wooden sword ready. Tinker waited for Stormsong to flash the "all clear" signal before entering the warehouse.
The cement floor was rough and warm under her stocking feet. She walked into the room, feeling like she should be wading. It lacked the resistance of water, but she could sense a current, a slow circular flow, and a depth.
Wojo followed, oblivious to magic. "This is the space. Is it big enough? If we can get the refrigerator unit to work?"
Tinker considered the loading dock, the wide door, and the large room. They would have to transfer the tree from the flatbed to something wheeled, then shift both back onto the flatbed to get the tree up to the loading dock height and still be able to shift it into the cooler. Given that they'd have to fit a forklift in to help with the transfer, it would be a tight fit, but certainly doable.
"Yeah, this will do." Of course they would have to drain off the massive excess of magic. Strong magic and heavy machinery did not mix well. "You had the cooling unit running for, what, ten years? I'm surprised you managed to keep it running that long."
"More like fourteen," Wojo said. "Your grandfather, actually, came over just after Startup and set us up so it worked fine for years. It didn't break down until after he died."
The machine room was off the back of the refrigerated room, through a regular-sized door in the insulated wall. The compressor itself was normal. The cement around it, however, had been inscribed with a spell. A section had overloaded, burning out a part of the spell. She'd never seen anything like it.
"My grandfather did this?" Tinker asked.
"Yes." Wojo nodded. "He heard about the trouble we were having and volunteered to fix it. We were a little skeptical. Back then, no one knew anything about working magic. People are picking magic up, but still, no one had a clue how to fix what he did when it broke."
Tinker's family had the edge that they were descended from an elf who had been trapped on Earth. Her father, Leonardo Dufae, developed his hyperphase gate based off the quantum nature of magic after studying the family's codex. It was the main reason Tinker had been able to build a gate when no one on Earth had yet figured out how to copy her father's work.
"Define wacky," Tinker asked.
"What?" Wojo said.
"You said that it went wacky after the first Startup."
"Ah, well, the compressor seemed to work like a pump. The magic was so thick that you could see it. It blew every lightbulb on the block. The forklifts kept burning out but then they'd skitter across the room, just inches off the floor. Loose paper would crawl up your leg like a kitten. It was just weird."
Yes, that fell under wacky. She knew that the electric forklifts had engines that could short to form a crude antigravity spell—it was what had given her the idea for hoverbikes. The loose paper was new. Perhaps they had something printed on them that had animated them.
"We finally just shut it down and gave all the ice cream to the queen's army." Wojo waved his hand to illustrate emptying out the vast storage area. "Kind of an icebreaker—pardon the pun. A thousand gallons of the cookie batter, chocolate fudge, and peanut butter. Luckily, the Chinese paid for the inventory loss and it hooked the elves on our ice cream."
Tinker sighed, combing her fingers back through her short hair. "Well, first I'll have to drain off the magic; by building a siphon that funnels magic to a storage unit. I have one set up for my electromagnet since a ley line runs through my scrapyard." She used to think of it as a strong ley line, but it was just a meandering stream compared to this torrent. "But that won't handle a flood like you're talking about."
"Whatever your grandfather did worked for years."
The question was—what had her grandfather done? To start from scratch would take time she didn't have, not with the black willow warming in the sun. Luckily, he had kept meticulous records on anything he ever worked on. "I'll go through his things and see if I can find a copy of the spell."
7: THINGS BETTER LEFT BURIED
The treaty between the elves and humans banned certain humans from Pittsburgh as it traveled back and forth between the worlds: criminals, the mentally insane, and orphans. When her grandfather had died, her cousin Oilcan had been seventeen and Tinker had just turned thirteen. Facing possible deportation, dealing with her grandfather's things had been the last thing on Tinker's mind. Truth be told, she'd run a little mad at the time, resisting Lain and Oilcan's attempts to have her move in with them. She had roamed the city, hiding from her grief, and sleeping wherever night found her. Terrified that she was going to lose the only world she'd ever known, she had drunk it down in huge swallows.
Only when Oilcan had turned eighteen, able to be her legal guardian, had they settled back into a normal life. With money from licensing her hoverbike design, she had set up her scrap yard business, moved into a loft, and laid claim to a sprawling garage between the two. Her grief, however, had been too fresh to deal with her grandfather's things; Oilcan and Nathan Czernowski had packed them up and stored them away in a room at the back of the garage.
Even now—looking at the small mountain of boxes, draped in plastic, smelling of age—it was tempting to just shut the door on the emotional land mines that the boxes might hold.
"Domi," Pony said quietly behind her. "What are we looking for here?"
"My grandfather created the spell at the ice cream factory. I need to find his notes on it so I can fix it quickly. I figure it's in one of these boxes."
Pony nodded, looking undaunted by the task. "How can we help?"
Backing out of the whole tree mess wasn't really an option; she already had too many people involved. The dust, however, was making her nose itch.
"Can you take these boxes out to the parking pad?" She waved toward the square of sunbaked cement. "After I look through a box, you can put it back."
The first box she opened was actually some of their old racing gear. Inside were a dozen of their FRS walkie-talkies, heavily shielded against magic. She'd upgraded the team to earbuds, and mothballed the handheld radios.
"Score!" she cried. "This is just what I wanted!"
"What are they?" Pony picked one up. "Phones?"
"Close. I want to make it so the Hands can communicate over distance better. These are a little bit clunky but they're easy to use."
Oddly, Stormsong thought this was funny. She took the box, saying mysteriously, "This should be interesting."
Tinker supposed it could be worse. Her grandfather had been methodical in organizing his things. Oilcan kept everything carefully separated as he packed the boxes. Still she couldn't find anything filed under "Reinholds", "Refrigeration", "Ice Cream", or the type of compressor that Reinholds used.
"Ze domi," Stormsong murmured politely.
Tinker sighed. Random searching wasn't going to work. "What is it, Stormsong?"
"I want to thank you for yesterday."
"Yesterday?" Tinker found the Aa-Ak box and sat down beside it. "Can you put these boxes in alphabetical order?"
Stormsong started to rearrange the boxes, but switched to English, losing her polite mask. "Look, little one, you're a good kid—your heart is in the right place—so I guess I do have to thank you for that stupidity you pulled yesterday. If you hadn't come back, I'd be dead. But I had made my peace with that—being sekasha is all about choosing your life and your death—so don't ever pull that shit again. You really fucked up. When that thing hit you, you should have been so much dead meat—and that would have been a huge waste, because you are a good kid. The kind I would have been happy dying to protect—do you understand?"
Tinker blinked at her for moment, before finding her voice. "I thought I figured out a way to kill it."
"It wasn't your place to kill it."
"What? I lost at paper, scissors, stone?"
"You know what I hate about being a sekasha? It's the domana. We sekasha spend our lives learning the best way to handle any emergency. We train and train and train—and then have to kowtow to some domana who is just winging it because they've got the big guns. Do you know what? Just because you've got the big brains, or the kick-ass spells, doesn't mean you know everything. Next fight, shut the fuck up and do what you're told, or I'm going to bitch slap you."
It took Tinker a moment to find her voice. "You know, I think I like you better when you speak Elvish."
Stormsong laughed. "And I like you better when you speak English. You're more human."
Tinker controlled the urge to stick out her tongue. She deserved Stormsong's criticism because she had screwed up. Still, she suddenly felt like crying. Oh joy. The last few weeks had left her rubbed raw. Instead, she pushed the Aa-Ak box toward Stormsong, saying, "I'm done with this one," and moved on. At least, having had her say, Stormsong took the box away without comment.
Under "Birth" Tinker found birth certificates for everyone in the family but herself. She pulled Oilcan's and had Stormsong put it in the car. Under "Dufae" she found the original Dufae Codex carefully sealed in plastic. She'd only worked with the scanned copy that her father had made.
"Wow." That too she pulled out and had put in the Rolls to take home with her. The next box started with E's, and toward the back was a thick file folder marked simply "Esme." "What the hell?"
Tinker pried the file out of the box, flipped it open, and found Esme Shanske looking back. She ruffled quickly through the file. It was all information on Esme. NASA bios. Newspaper clippings. Photographs. It threw her into sudden and complete confusion.
"What are you doing here?" she asked Esme's photo. "I wasn't looking for you. What was I looking for?" She had to think a moment before remembering that she wanted to find her grandfather's notes on the spell at Reinholds so the walk-in freezer could function again so she could store the black willow. But why? "Why am I doing this again?"
Lain wanted the black willow (thus the whole reason it was salvaged in the first place) and it might revive—good reason to lock the tree in the cooler. The cooler was broken. She needed to fix it. They were all nice, sane, and logical links in a chain.
What made it all weird were her dreams and Esme popping up in odd places. It jarred hard with Tinker's orderly conception of reality. It pushed her into an uncomfortable feeling that the world wasn't as solid and fixed as she thought it was. She wanted to ignore it all, but Windwolf had said that it wasn't wise to ignore her dreams.
Perhaps if she dealt with them in a scientific manner, they wouldn't seem so—frighteningly weird.
She got her datapad and settled in the sun to write out what she remembered of the dream, and what had already materialized. The pearl necklace headed the list, since it was the first to appear. Second was the black willow and the ice cream. She considered the hedgehogs of the dream and the flamingoes in the book's illustrations and decided her future might be decidedly weird.
And who was the Asian woman in black? She felt that the woman had to be tengu because of the crows. She had felt, however, that she knew the woman, just as she knew Esme. Perhaps she was another colonist, which was why the birds kept repeating, "Lost." Riki had told her that the first ship was crewed by tengu. Then it hit her—Riki lied about everything. She flopped back onto the sun warm cement and covered her eyes. Gods, what was she doing? Trying to apply logic to dream symbols was not going to work! So how was she going to figure out the future with only dreams and possible lies?
"Domi." Pony's voice and the touch of his hand on her face yanked Tinker out of her nightmare. "Wake up."
Tinker opened her eyes and struggled awake. She lay on the warm, rough cement of the parking pad. Stormsong was doing a leisurely prowl in the alley. Pony knelt beside her, sheltering her from the sun. She groaned and rubbed at her eyes; they burned with unshed tears.
"What is it?"
"You were having a nightmare."
She grunted and sat up, not wanting to fall back to sleep, perchance to dream. Lately dreaming was a bitch. The oni had really force-fed her id some whoppers, not that her imagination really needed it, no thank you.
"Domi?" His dark eyes mirrored the concern in his murmured question. "Are you all right?"
"It was just a bad dream." She yawned so deep her face felt like it would split in half. "How can I sleep and wake up more tired?"
"You've only been asleep for a few minutes." He shifted so that he sat beside her. "Nor was it restful sleep."
"You're telling me." In her dreams, she hadn't been able to save him from being flayed of his tattoos. She leaned against his bare arm, his skin and tattoos wonderfully intact, glad for the opportunity to reassure herself without making a big deal of it. Just a nightmare.
He smelled wonderful. After weeks together, she knew his natural scent. He was wearing some kind of cologne, an enticing light musk. She felt the now familiar desire uncoil inside her. Gods, why did stress make her want to lick honey off his rock-hard abs? Was this some kind of weird primitive wiring—most of us are going off to be eaten by saber-toothed tigers, so let's fuck like crazy before the gene pool lessens? Or was she uniquely screwed up?
Every night with Pony among the oni had been a torture of temptation. There had been only one bed and she had been stupid enough to insist that they share it. She would lay awake, desperately wanting to reach out to him—to be held, to be made love to, to be taken care of. She managed to resist because of a little voice that reminded her that she would swap Pony for Windwolf in a heartbeat—that it was her husband she really wanted. There had been no way to kick Pony out of the bed without admitting how much she wanted him, so he and her secret temptation stayed.
Even now she fought the urge to plant little kisses on his bicep. I'm a married woman. I'm married and I do love Windwolf. She couldn't even imagine being married to Pony, although she wasn't sure why—he was to-die-for cute. Unfortunately, she could imagine having hot sex with him. She sighed as her curiosity stirred to wonder what running her tongue up the curve of his arm would taste like. Now I've done it—it will eat me alive wondering . . .
"Domi, what is it?"
Embarrassment burned through her. "N-n-nothing. I'm just tired. I haven't been sleeping well."
"Have you found what you needed?" he asked.
"No." She shook her head and yawned again. She saved her notes on the datapad and handed Esme's file to him. "Put this in the Rolls. I'll get back to work."
Luckily the information she was looking for was in the F's, under "Flux Compression Generator". Huh? Normally compressing a magnetic field would generate more amperes of current than a lightning bolt and cause an electromagnetic pulse. What in hell was her grandfather thinking? But there was no mistaking the Reinhold floor layout, and the accompanying notes on the spell. With the folder, it should be fairly simple to recreate her grandfather's spell.
She heard the scrape of boots on the cement behind her. The sekasha were probably bored to tears.
"This is what I was looking for." She got to her feet and brushed the dust from her skirt. She looked up and was startled to find the sekasha forming a wall of muscle between her and Nathan Czernowski. The sight of him put a tingle of nervousness through her. "Nathan? What are you doing here?"
"I saw the Rolls and figured that it had to be you."
"Yeah, it's me." She busied herself with the boxes as an excuse not to look at him, wondering why she felt so weird until she remembered where they'd left off. Last time she'd seen him, he—he—she didn't even want to assign a word to it.
Nathan had been like an older brother to her and Oilcan. He'd hung around the garage and scrap yard on his off hours, drinking beer with them, and shooting the breeze. On racing days, he acted as security for her pit. She knew all his sprawling family members, had attended their weddings and funerals and birthday parties. There wasn't another man in Pittsburgh that she would have let into her loft while she was dressed only in a towel. Nobody else she would have thought herself utterly safe with.
Then he'd held her down, torn off her towel, and tried to push into her.
In one terrifying second, he'd become a large, frightening stranger. She had never considered before how tall he was, how strong he was, or how easily he could do anything he wanted with her.
He hadn't actually done—it. He'd stopped. He seemed to be listening to her. She would never know if he actually would have gotten off her, and let her up, and gone back to the Nathan she knew, because Pony had come to her rescue.
A day later she'd been snatched up by the queen's Wyverns, dragged away to attend the royal court, and then kidnapped by the oni, where she witnessed true evil. She hadn't thought of Nathan once in all that time. She wasn't sure what she felt now.
"I heard about the monster—" Nathan started.
"You and all of Pittsburgh. I'm fine!"
"I see." Nathan gazed her wistfully. "You look beautiful."
"Thanks." She knew it was mostly the jewel red silk dress. She also knew that it clung to her like paint where it wasn't exposing vast amounts of skin. Suddenly she felt weirdly under-dressed.
They stood a moment in nervous silence. Finally, Nathan wet his lips and said, "I'm sorry. I went way over the line, and I'm—so—sorry."
She burned with sudden embarrassment; it was like being naked under him again. "I don't want to talk about it."
"No, I'm ashamed of what I did, and I want to apologize— though I know that really doesn't cut it." His voice grew husky with self-loathing. "I would have killed another man for doing it. That I was drunk and jealous excuses nothing."
"Nathan, I don't know how to deal with this."
"I just loved you so much. I still do. It kills me that I lost you. I just don't want you to hate me."
"I don't hate you," she whispered. "I'm pissed to hell at you. And I'm a little scared of you now. But I don't hate you."
At least she didn't think she did. He had stopped—that counted for something, didn't it? More than anything, she felt stupid for letting it happen. Everyone had told her that things wouldn't work out between her and Nathan—and she had ignored them.
They stood in awkward silence. It dawned on her that the sekasha were still between her and Nathan, a quiet angry presence. She realized that Pony must have told Stormsong who Nathan was and what he'd done, and embarrassment burned through her. Once again she was having her nose ground into the fact that she was being constantly watched. She pushed past the sekasha and Nathan, wondering how much detail had Pony told Stormsong. She could trust Pony with her life, but not her privacy; she wasn't even sure he understood the concept.
When she reached the Rolls, she was tempted to climb in and drive away, but that would mean leaving the storage room half unpacked. She dropped the file in the back of the car, beside the other things she'd set aside to take home. Nathan and the sekasha had trailed her out to the Rolls. Somehow, out in the alley, she felt more claustrophobic, their presence made unavoidable by the fact that they had followed her en masse.
"I have what I need," she told Pony and then realized she had said that already. "Everything else needs to be put back."
"Yes, domi." Pony signaled to Stormsong to return to the storage room; he remained with Tinker.
Nathan stayed too. His police cruiser sat behind the Rolls. For some reason the Pittsburgh police had doubled up and Bue Pedersen waited patiently for Nathan to finish.
"Bowman." Tinker nodded to Bue.
"Hiya, Tinker." Bue nodded back.
"They tell me that you're his domi." Nathan meant Windwolf.
"Yeah." She fiddled with the bracelet. She had no wedding ring to flash as proof. Elves apparently didn't go for those kinds of things.
"You know, everyone's going on and on as if you got married to him and you're a princess now, but Tooloo says that you're not his wife."
Her heart flipped in her chest. "What?"
"Tooloo says that Windwolf didn't marry you."
She stared at him dumbfounded for a minute before she thought to say, "And you believed her? Tooloo lies. You ask her five times in a row when her birthday is and she'll tell you a different date each time!"
He looked down at her bare fingers. "Then why was there no wedding? Why no ring?"
She tried to ignore the weird cartwheeling in her chest. "Nathan, it's not—they—they don't do things like we do."
He gave a cold bitter laugh. "Yeah, like changing someone's species without asking them."
"He asked!" she snapped. She just hadn't understood.
"Come on, Tink. I was there. You had no idea what he had done to you. You still don't know. You think you're married. Hell, half the city thinks you're married. But you're not."
She shook her head and clung to the one thing she knew for sure. "Tooloo lies about everything. She hates Windwolf. She's lying to you."
"I don't have time for this bullshit! Stormsong, we're leaving! Just lock the door and come."
"The humans farm—grass?" Bladebite prodded the green rectangle of sod laid down in the palace clearing.
"Convenient, isn't it?" Wolf pointed out, although he suspected that his First Hand wouldn't see it as such.
"It's unnatural," Bladebite grumbled. "Grass already grows quickly—why would they want it to instantly appear?"
Wolf rubbed at his temple where a headache was starting to form. "Quickly," of course, was all a matter of perspective. The palace clearing was still a raw wound of earth from cutting down the ironwoods and tearing up the massive stumps. Until the dead gossamer could be removed from the faire grounds, the clearing would have to double as an airfield. Wolf knew his First Hand reflected what most elves would think of the sod. It couldn't be helped. After last night's rainfall, the clearing was turning into a pit of mud.
Wolf had delegated cleaning up the gossamer body to Wraith Arrow, an imperfect match of abilities and task, but currently the best he could hope for as Tinker had apparently found some project on the North Side that was taking up her time. Reports were drifting back, along with a box of walkie-talkies.
His First Hand viewed the devices with the same open suspicion as the sod. Luckily, while Wraith dealt with the gossamer, Cloudwalker filled the fifth position. The "baby" sekasha was cautiously prodding the buttons on the walkie-talkie.
While his Hands kept alert for trouble, Wolf focused on getting the clearing ready for the arrival of the queen's troops. The settlements on the East Coast reported that a dreadnaught had passed overhead, so it would be arriving soon.
"You're not going to take down the oaks—are you?" The human contractor pointed out the massive wind oaks. "That would be a crying shame."
Wolf hated the idea of cutting down the trees for a single day's use of the clearing. While the trees were spell-worked to be extremely long-lived, their acorns rarely sprouted hardy saplings, and thus the trees continued to be quite rare. Wolf had been sure that finding five so close to Pittsburgh was a sign of the gods' blessings. He had chosen the site because of the trees and planned to build the palace around them.
He paced the clearing, trying to remember the dreadnaught's size. Would there be room for it to land without taking down the trees? While he did, he wondered about the oni's attack. Why kill the gossamer? Thinking with a cold heart, he realized that it would have made more sense for the oni to attack Poppymeadow's in the middle of the night. The ley line through the enclaves wasn't strong enough to support aggressive defense spells. The rocket would have triggered the alarms, but Wolf wouldn't have been able to call his shields in time.
One would think that the oni would have realized by now that Wolf was their strongest adversary. But maybe he was overestimating their grasp on the situation. Taking himself out of the equation, he considered the question again. Why the gossamer? There had been a second gossamer in plain sight, waiting for mooring. True, that airship had fled the area and it would probably take hours for its navigator to coax the beast back to Pittsburgh. Perhaps the oni hoped to isolate Wolf by killing both his ships before he could react. Perhaps they didn't realize that he had already sent for support.
While the gossamer's death was a pity, he was glad that the oni attacked it and not the enclaves. He had lost two of his sekasha this century. He did not want to lose another.
Wolf became aware that the sekasha had stopped a human from approaching him while he was thinking. He focused on the man with pale eyes and a dark goatee. "What is it that you want?"
"I'm the city's coroner." The man took Wolf's question as permission to close the distance. Bladebite stopped the human with a straight arm and a cold look.
"I am not familiar with that word," Wolf said.
"I'm—I'm the one that deals with the dead."
"I see." Wolf signaled to his Hand to let the man advance. Sparrow had dealt with this man, since Wolf had been wounded the two times his people had been killed.
"Tim Covington." The coroner held out his hand to be shaken.
Wolf considered the offered hand. The other domana would not allow such contact—a broken finger would leave them helpless. Humans needed to be schooled in day-to-day manners—but was now the time to start? He decided that today, he would keep to human politeness and shook Covington's hand. At least the man introduced himself first, which would be correct for both races.
"Wolf Who Rules Wind."
"I was down the street, dealing with the oni bodies, and they said you were here."
"We only executed one oni."
Covington looked away, clearly disturbed. "They unearthed two more dead males when they brought in the backhoe."
"Why do you seek me out? I have no dead."
"I've been coroner for nearly ten years. I dealt with both Lightning Strike and Hawk Scream." Covington named the two fallen sekasha.
"They have been given up to the sky."
"Well, I prepared Sparrow but no one has come for her. The enclaves—they have no phones. I wasn't sure what to do."
Bladebite recognized Sparrow's English nickname. He spat on the ground in disgust.
"No one will come for Sparrow." Wolf turned back to pacing the clearing.
"What do you mean?" Covington fell in step with Wolf.
"Sparrow betrayed her clan. We will have nothing to do with her now. Deal with her body as if she was an oni."
Cloudwalker suddenly trotted up to them, looking concerned. "Domou! We have a problem."
"What is it?" Wolf cocked his fingers to call the winds.
Cloudwalker pointed to the oak trees. Humans had chained themselves to the massive trunks.
"How did they get there?" Wolf glanced around at the three Hands of sekasha scattered across the clearing.
Cloudwalker blushed with embarrassment. "We—we tested them and they were not oni. They had no weapons."
They did have a banner that read, "Save the oaks." Wolf had heard of this type of lunacy, but never seen it in action. How did they get organized so quickly?
"We did not realize that they were not part of the human work crew," Cloudwalker finished. "So we let them pass. What do you want us to do with them?"
Wolf didn't completely trust his sekasha to solve the problem without involving swords. He didn't want dead peaceful protesters. "Call Wraith Arrow—he has the EIA helping him. Have them send the police to arrest these humans."
Covington waited as if there was more he needed. Wolf turned to him.
"I'm not sure what to do with the oni," Covington continued their conversation. "Do you know their practices?"
"I am told that in times of plenty, they feed their dead to their hounds," Wolf said. "In times of famine, they eat both their dead and their dogs."
"I don't believe that's true. That's the kind of sick propaganda that always gets generated in a war."
"Elves do not lie." Wolf paused to consider the areas he had just paced off. He believed that the one section of the clearing was large enough for the dreadnaught to land easily, even in high winds. The other sections, however, were deceptively small—they should mark the areas in some manner.
"Everyone lies." Covington demonstrated in two words the humans' greatest strength and weakness. They were able to look at anything and see it as human. It gave them great ability to empathize but it also kept them from seeing others clearly.
"Our society is built on blind trust," Wolf said. "Lying is not an option for us."
But Covington couldn't see it. Perhaps it was too big for him to grasp. The need for truth came from everything from their immortality to their fragile memory, to the ancient roots of the clans, to the interdependency of their day to day lives. Tinker, though, seemed to understand it to her core.
"Treat Sparrow as you see fit." Wolf knew that Covington would be true to his human nature, and treat her with respect, but unknowingly consign the dead elf to the horrors of embalming fluid, a coffin, and a grave instead of open sky. "Ask the EIA what to do with the oni bodies. Be aware that there will be more. Many more."
Tinker's grandfather always said that you needed a plan for everything from baking a cake to total global domination. He taught her the minutia of project management along with experimental and mathematical procedure. Over the years, she had put the skill to good use, from starting a small salvage business at age fourteen, to thwarting the oni army with just her wits and one unarmed sekasha.
The truly wonderful thing about focusing on a complex project was there wasn't time to think of messy, extraneous details like elfin wedding customs. Just trying to drain the buildup of magic out of the cooler required creative scavenging for parts and guerilla raids across the city for workers. She designed four jury-rigged pumps that used electromagnets to siphon magic into steel drums of magnetized iron fillings. Unfortunately, the drums would slowly leak magic back out, so they would have to rotate them out, letting them sit someplace until inert. While the siphons were inside the cooler, she sat the drums outside, so whoever changed them didn't need to enter the locked room. The walls seemed solid enough—she would have to check the architectural drawings to be sure, but certainly reinforcing the door wouldn't hurt.
The more she considered safety procedures, the less sure she was this was a good idea. The project, however, was rampaging beyond her ability to stop it. The Reinholds employees were searching out drawings and adding bars to the door, the EIA was sending a tractor-trailer truck to Lain's, a dozen hastily drafted elves were gathering to help with the move, and she'd given out her promises like Halloween candy.
Why was she doing this again? Was her only reason some nonsense out of a dream? Or was she really focusing on the tree so she didn't have to consider that Tooloo was right?
Afraid that she'd fry any of her computer equipment, she had stuck to low-tech project management. Settling on the loading dock's edge, she wrote "domi" on her pad of paper and then slowly circled it again and again as her thoughts spun around the question.
Without question, she was Windwolf's domi—the queen herself had confirmed that. Tinker had assumed that domi meant "wife"; for a long time she simply translated it as "wife." Later, she had sensed that it didn't mean quite the same thing. And Windwolf never used the English word "wife" or for that matter, "married." He'd given her some beans, a brazier, and a dau mark. She rubbed at her dau between her eyebrows, feeling the slight difference in skin texture under the blue glyph. What the hell kind of wedding ceremony was that? And nothing else? Hell, when Nathan's cousin Benny had been married by the justice of the peace, they still had a wedding reception afterward. Surely the elves did something to celebrate a marriage—so why hadn't there been something?
If domi didn't mean "wife," what did it mean? When she had talked to Maynard two months ago about it, she'd gotten the impression it meant she was married, but now she couldn't recall the exact words that Maynard had used. What she remembered distinctly was how Maynard had been carefully trying to keep his balance on the fence between the humans and the elves. Had she heard only what she wanted to hear? Certainly it would make a neater package for Maynard if Windwolf had married Tinker instead of just carried her off to be a live-in prostitute.
Whispering in the bottom of her soul was a small voice that called her a glorified whore. She couldn't ignore the fact that the only thing she did with Windwolf was have sex. Great sex. Wives did more than that—didn't they? Nathan's mother and sisters went grocery shopping, cooked for their husbands, and cleaned up the dirty dishes but Lemonseed handled all that for Windwolf. Wives washed clothes—Nathan's sisters actually had long discussions on the best ways to get out stains. Dandelion, however, headed the laundry crew.
Without thinking about it, she started a decision tree, branching out "wife" and "whore." What difference did it make to her? She never worried about being a "good girl" but at the same time, she had always been contemptuous of women who were either too dumb or too lazy to do real work, using their bodies instead of their brain to make a living. Could she live with all of Pittsburgh knowing that she was a glorified whore?
Stormsong squatted down beside her, took the pencil from her hand, and scratched out "whore" and "wife" and wrote "lady." "That, domi, is the closest English word. It means 'one who rules.' It denotes a position within the clan that oversees households that have allegiance to them but are not directly part of their household."
"Like the enclaves?"
"Yes, all the enclaves of Pittsburgh owe fidelity to Wolf Who Rules. He chose people he thought could function as heads and supported the building of their households. It is a huge undertaking to convince people to leave their old households and shift to a new one. To leave the Easternlands—to come to this wilderness—to settle beside the uneasy strangeness of Pittsburgh—" Stormsong shook her head and switched to English. "You have no fucking idea how much trust these people have in Wolf."
"So why did he choose me? And why do these people listen to me?"
"I think that he sees greatness in you and he loves you for it. And they trust him."
"So they don't really trust me?"
"Ah, we're elves. We need half a day to decide if we need to piss."
"So—I'm not married to him?"
Stormsong tilted her head side to side, squinting as she considered the two cultures. "The closest English word is 'married' but it's too—small—and common."
"So, it's grand and exotic—and there's no ceremony for it?"
Stormsong nodded. "Yup, that's about it."
A hoverbike turned into the alley with a sudden roar. Stormsong sprang to her feet, her hand going to her sword. Pony checked the female sekasha with a murmur of "Nagarou" identifying Tinker's cousin Oilcan as the sister's son of Tinker's father.
Oilcan swooped around the extra barrels and dropped down to land in front of the loading dock where Tinker sat.
"Hey!" Oilcan called as he killed his hoverbike's engine. "Wow! Look at you."
"Hey yourself!" Tinker tugged down her skirt, just in case she was flashing panty. Gods, she hated dresses. "Thanks for coming."
"Glad to help." He leaned against the chest-high dock. Wood sprites were what Tooloo had called them as kids—small, nut brown from head to bare toes, and fey in the way people used to think elves would look. Beneath his easy smile and summer stain of walnut, though, he seemed drawn.
"You okay?" She nudged him in the ribs with her toe.
"Me?" He scoffed. "I'm not the one being attacked by monsters every other day."
"Bleah." She poked him again to cover the guilty feeling of making him so worried about her. "It's like—what—nearly noon? And there's not a monster in sight."
"I'm glad you called." He pulled out a folded newspaper. "Otherwise I might have been worried. Did you see this?"
"This" was a full front-page story screaming "Princess Mauled." She hadn't seen a photographer yesterday when Windwolf carried her through the coach yard but apparently one had seen her. She flopped back onto the cement. "Oh, son of a turd."
Oilcan nudged against her foot, as if seeking the closeness they had just moments before. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have shown it to you."
"You didn't take the picture." Lying down felt too good, like she could easily drift to sleep. She sat back up and held out her hand for the paper. "Let me see how bad it really is."
She looked small, helpless, and battered in Windwolf's arms, covered with an alarming amount of blood. The picture caption was "Viceroy Windwolf carries Vicereine Tinker to safety after she and her bodyguards were attacked by a large wild animal."
"What the hell is a vicereine?" she asked.
"Wife of the viceroy."
"Oh." There, she was married, the newspaper said so. "It still sounds weird."
"All of it. Vicereine. Princess. Wife. Married. It seems unreal for some reason."
She scanned the story. It was odd that while it was she and the five elf warriors in the valley, all the information came from human sources. It listed her age and previous address, but only gave Stormsong's English name, not her full elfin one of Linapavuata-watarou-bo-taeli which meant Singing Storm Wind. And the sekasha were labeled "royal bodyguards." Was it because the reporter didn't speak Elvish, or was it because the elves didn't like to talk about themselves? She learned nothing except that the news had a very human slant. It was odd that she hadn't noticed before.
"Even after all this time, you don't feel married?" Oilcan asked.
She made a rude noise and nudged him again in the ribs with her toe. "No. Not really. It doesn't help that Tooloo is spreading rumors that I'm not."
"She is? Why?"
"Who knows why that crazy half-elf does anything?" Tinker wasn't sure which was worse: that Tooloo was considered an expert on elfin culture, or that the people Tinker cared about most all shopped at Tooloo's general store. Her lies would spread out from McKees Rocks like a virus with an authenticity that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette couldn't touch.
"Hell," she continued. "It was like three days before I even figured out that I was married—I don't even remember what I said when he proposed."
"Does he treat you well?" Oilcan asked. "Doesn't yell at you? Call you names? Try to make you feel stupid?"
She made the kick a little harder. "He's good to me. He treats me like a princess."
"Ow!" He danced away, laughing. "Okay, okay. I just don't want to see you hurt." He sobered, and added quietly. "My dad always waited until we were home alone."
His father had beaten his mother to death in a drunken rage. When Oilcan came to live with them, he was black-and-blue from head to knees, and flinched at a raised hand.
"Windwolf isn't like your dad." She tried not to be angry at the comparison; Oilcan was only worried about her. "If nothing else, he's a hell of a lot older than your dad."
"This is a good thing?"
Tinker clicked her tongue in an elfin shrug without thinking and then realized what she'd done. "The elves have been so much more patient than I could ever imagine being. Windwolf has moved his whole household to Pittsburgh to make me happy, because to them, living here for a couple decades is nothing."
"Now, are you going to help me with this tree?" she asked.
"I'll think about it." He grinned impishly.
8: CALLING THE WIND
She had to learn not to be surprised when Windwolf popped up at odd times.
She was stretched out on the back room's floor, making a copy of her grandfather's spell. Her attempts with a camera had failed, the magical interference corrupting the digital image. After what it had done to the camera, she had decided against bringing in her datapad to scan it. Instead she had Reinholds find a roll of brown packaging paper. She had covered the floor with paper, and now was making a tracing by simply rubbing crayons lightly across the paper, pressing harder when she felt the depression of the spell tracings. Working with the damaged spell made her nervous, and her dress was driving her nuts, so she had stripped down to underwear and socks and Oilcan's T-shirt.
She'd worn the black crayon out, so she upended the box, spilling the rest of the crayons out onto the floor beside her. The array of colors splayed out on the floor shoved all other thoughts from her mind. She used to make magic pencils by mixing metal filings into melted crayons, pouring them into molds and then wrapping them with construction paper. The only bulk supply of crayons were the packs of sixty-four different shades, which she would separate into the eight basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, black, and white. It got so she could look at a spray of crayons and see those eight—but she was seeing twelve now.
Since becoming an elf, she knew she saw the world slightly differently. Things she thought were beautiful had been suddenly nearly garish or clashed weirdly. This was the first time that she had proof that Windwolf had somehow changed her basic vision.
"There you are." Windwolf's voice came from above her.
She glanced up to find him standing beside her. "What are you doing here?"
"I was told that you were here, drawing pictures—mostly naked."
"Pfft." She focused back on the paper, not sure how she felt about knowing that her vision had been changed. In a way, it was like getting glasses—right? "I only took my boots, bra, and dress off."
She glanced over her shoulder at him and blushed at how he was looking at her. "Hey!"
He grinned and settled cross-legged besides her, resting his hand on the small of her back. "This is an odd beast."
It took her a moment to realize he meant the damaged spell, not her.
"Do you recognize it?"
"In a manner of speaking. It is not a whole spell." He studied the circuits. "This is only an outer shell—one that controls effects put out by another spell."
She had been focusing on the various subsections and hadn't realized that they didn't form a complete spell. Her knowledge of magic came solely from experimentation and her family's codex, which itself seemed to be an eclectic collection of spells.
"It's possible that this machine sets up a spell-like effect." Windwolf motioned to the compressor. "And this shell modifies that effect."
"Oh, yes. The heat exchanger could be acting like a spell."
"These are Stone Clan runes. See this symbol?" He traced one of the graceful lines. "This subsection has to do with gravitational force—which falls within earth magic."
"I didn't realize it was Stone Clan."
"Where did you learn it?" he asked.
"My family has a spell codex that's been handed down for generations."
"This means that your forefather was a Stone Clan domana."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Such spells are closely guarded. The clan's powers rest on the control of their element."
"Maybe he stole it." That appealed to her, a master thief as an ancestor.
"With your family's sense of honor, that is unlikely."
That pleased her more. She abandoned the tracing to roll over and smile up at him. "So my family is honorable, eh?"
He put his warm palm on her bare stomach to rub lazy circles there. "Very. It shows in everything you and your cousin do."
"Hmm." She enjoyed the moment, gazing up at him. The look in his eyes always made her melt inside. It still stunned her that someone could be directing such love toward her. How did she get so lucky? Of course her brain cared more about puzzles. "But I couldn't feel magic before you made me your domi."
Windwolf shook his head. "The magic sense is a recessive trait. It would have quickly vanished in the following generations of mating with humans."
"Would I be able to use their spell stones?"
"I doubt it very much." Windwolf shook his head. "Only part of that is ability, though; the rest is politics. Even if you somehow retained the needed genes, the Stone Clan will not train my domi."
"That's a bitch."
There was a slight noise and Windwolf glanced toward it. One of the sekasha who came with him, Bladebite, took up post by the door from the machine room into the warehouse. The pallets with the black willow filled the dim room now. The door out to summer was just a distant rectangle of light on the other side of the tree. For a moment, all of their attention was on the still tree. Thankfully, the siphons were working—she could sense no overflow of magic—and the tree remained dormant. She needed to finish up so they could kick on the compressor and take the refrigeration room down to freezing.
"I do not like you working close to that thing," Windwolf said. "The sekasha would not be able to kill it if it roused."
"I know. It usually takes dynamite and a bulldozer to take one down. But I think my dreams are saying that it's a key to protecting what we have."
"Dreams are hard to interpret."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. That's one thing I did learn with the whole pivot stuff—this dream stuff is counterintuitive. What feels like the wrong thing is sometimes the right thing."
The queen's oracle, Pure Radiance, had foreseen that Tinker would be the one person who could block the oni invasion of Elfhome—the pivot on which the future would turn. Oracles seemed to operate on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; apparently telling Tinker how she was going to stop the oni would keep Tinker from doing it. Considering Chiyo's mind reading ability and Sparrow's betrayal, it was just as well that the oracle had been obscure. Thinking back, though, Pure Radiance must have known more than she told Tinker; having Tinker dragged to Aum Renau and kept there for three weeks allowed Tinker to strengthen her body, build a strong relationship with Pony, and learn skills she needed to kill Lord Tomtom, the leader of the oni.
Nevertheless, the key to stopping the oni had been doing what they wanted her to do—which seemed to completely defy logic.
"At least travel with a full Hand," Windwolf said. "Chose four more—any one of them would be proud to pledge to you."
"I don't want to take your people from you. Besides, didn't you say that once I took Pony that I couldn't set him aside without making him look bad? How could you give me yours without insulting them?"
"I cannot give them to you. They must offer themselves to you. It is their hearts, which I cannot rule, which you accept."
There were times she felt like the conversation had been run through a translator one too many times. "How can I just choose four at random? Wouldn't that be me asking and you giving?"
"They have let me know that if you need them, they would be willing to go. I have released all of them from their pledge so that they are free to go."
"All of them?"
Windwolf nodded. "With the exception of Wraith Arrow. I need him. You have gained much respect with the sekasha. And I am greatly pleased."
"What do you think of Stormsong? Do you fit with her?"
Fit with her? That was an interesting choice of words. Not "like her," which was what she expected Windwolf to ask. "She's a pistol. Sometimes it seems like she's two different people, depending on which tongue she's speaking."
"A language can govern your thoughts. You cannot think of something if you have no words for it. English is a richer language than Elvish, infused with countless other tongues over time. And in so many ways, English is freer. Elvish is layered heavily with politeness to enforce the laws of our society."
Tinker considered. Yes, politeness came more readily to her when she spoke Elvish. It was only when she was using the very formal, very polite High Elvish that she noticed—and then it was because it felt like being handcuffed into being nice.
"I like speaking English with you," Windwolf said. "I feel like I can just be me—the male that loves you, and not the lord and ruler of our household. That we show each other our true faces when we talk like this."
"Yeah, I noticed that when Stormsong drops into High Elvish, it's like she puts on a mask."
"We speak so little High Elvish here compared to court. My mother says that this rough country is making me uncouth—I'm too plainspoken after being around humans so long. She expects me to come home wrapped in bearskins."
She couldn't believe that anyone could think of him, and all his smooth elegance, as uncouth. "Oh, please."
"If you're determined, you can be eloquently insulting in High Elvish. Court makes an art out of it. I don't have the patience for that—which has earned me a label of boorish."
"Idiots, they deserve a bloody nose."
"My little savage." He pulled her into his arms and kissed her soundly. "I love you dearly—and don't ever lose your fierce heart—but please, pick no fights, not until you've learned to defend yourself."
She skirted promising him anything by kissing him.
"Are you done here?" he asked much later.
"With this part." Reluctantly she slipped out of his arms to lift up the paper that had been covering the spell. "I dug through my grandfather's things and found his notes on this project. I need to compare this to what he has and then fix it. I'll finish it up tomorrow."
"Good," Windwolf said. "There is much we have to do and things I want to do. For instance, I want to talk to you about what direction we're going with the computing center."
"The what?" she asked before remembering. When she had returned to the Pittsburgh area during Shutdown, she had realized that technology on Elfhome was nonexistent. From electrical power to Pittsburgh's limited Internet, everything went with the city when it returned to Earth. In a fit of panic, she'd razed ten acres of virgin forest and drafted a small army to start work on building infrastructure. Since she had been kidnapped only hours into the project, she hadn't even gotten the chance to ask belated permission, let alone finish it. "Oh. That. I wasn't sure—you know—if you even considered it a good idea."
"I think it's an excellent idea."
"I haven't even thought about it since that morning."
"You left quite detailed plans." He brushed his hand along her cheek. "I made a few changes and had it finished. I'd like to expand it, though we probably should wait until the oni have been dealt with."
"But Pittsburgh is kind of stuck here now. What's the point?"
"The point is that Pittsburgh, right or wrong, feels too human for elves to make technology their own. It's like our cooks in Poppymeadow's kitchen; they can cook there, but it's not their kitchen, so they bow out and eat whatever Poppymeadow's staff makes. The changes I made to the computing center were ways to make it more comfortable for our people to use."
"Wow, I never thought of that." In truth, she hadn't been thinking about anyone but herself that morning. "How long do you think we can keep this level of technology, though, without Earth?"
"Once the oni are dealt with, we will find a way back to Earth." Windwolf promised with his eyes.
"Pittsburgh is never going back. The only way to affect all of Pittsburgh is from orbit. Even if we managed to start a space program, we'd have to get the alignment perfect so the enclaves stay here, and then sending Pittsburgh to the right universe . . ." She shivered. "I don't want that kind of responsibility."
"You and I can shake the universe until we find a way." He kissed her brow. "But first things first. Come, get dressed, and let me teach you magic."
Much to her surprise, he took her to the wide-open field where they had been building the new viceroy's palace. Oddly, a gossamer was moored here instead of at the Faire Grounds. They pulled to the edge of the abandoned project and got out of the Rolls. The entire thirty acres had been covered with sod.
"Why here?" She swung up onto the gray Phantom's hood. The windswept woman of its hood ornament— the spirit of ecstasy—seemed so appropriate for the Wind Clan. She wondered if that was how Windwolf had ended up with the Rolls Royce.
"The spell stones represent massive power." Windwolf settled beside her on the hood. "Poppymeadow would probably be annoyed if you lost control of the winds in her orchard."
There was a typical Windwolf answer. Did he sidestep the real question on purpose or was he teasing her with his very dry humor or did they just simply have a fundamental miscommunication problem?
"You're going to teach me how to fly?"
"No," he said slowly. "You will learn how, someday, but not from me, not today."
Her disappointment must have showed, as he actually explained more.
"I have sent for a sepana autanat," Windwolf told her. "But arrangements must be made, and such things take time."
"He trains the clan children in magic." He paused to search out the English word. "A teacher."
"Oh." She'd had so few teachers in her life that the idea of a total stranger teaching her was unsettling. "Can't you just teach me yourself?"
"I wish I could, but there are things I don't remember of the early lessons. And there were so many silly learning games we played that even now I don't understand why we did them. I suspect that they were to teach focus and control."
"What kind of games?"
He gave an embarrassed smile. "You will laugh." He stood up, squared his shoulders, and closed his eyes. Taking a breath, he raised his hands to his head, and eyes still closed, splayed out his fingers like tree branches waving in a breeze. "Ironwood stand straight and tall." He dropped his hands slightly so his thumbs were now in his ears, and he flapped the hands. "Gossamer flies over all." Hands to nose this time. "Flutist plays upon his pipe. Cook checks to see if fruit is ripe." He touched index fingers together. "Around and around, goes the bee." He spun in place three times. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."
He clapped five times and launched into the song again, faster this time, and then again, faster still. Windwolf was right; she had to giggle at him. He was so regally beautiful, yet he purposely used a childish singsong voice as he wiggled his fingers, spun in place, and clapped his hands. After the third round, he collapsed beside her, laughing. "Well, you're supposed to do that faster and faster, until you're too dizzy."
"What is that supposed to teach you?"
"I don't know." He lay back onto the warm hood to watch the clouds roll overhead, considering. "I think—it might have been staying aware of where your body is regardless of what you're doing. That is very important in controlling magic. There is much for you to learn, and not all of it has to do with controlling the winds."
She scoffed at that understatement. "I thought I knew a lot about elves, about clans and everything, but I'm finding that I don't know anything at all. Like I didn't know each clan had their own spells."
Windwolf considered her for a moment, sadness gathering at the edges of his eyes. "Yes, there is so very much you need to learn. I suppose some history can not hurt, and probably help make sense of our people."
She had heard one long history lesson from Tooloo, but Tooloo tended to twist things to her own unique way of looking at things. "Yeah, it might help."
"In the beginning all elves were much like humans, as evidenced by the fact that we can still interbreed," Windwolf started. "Perhaps—there is a chance—that the first elves were humans, lost through the gateways from Earth to Elfhome—or maybe humans are the ones that became lost. We were tribes scattered, hither and yon, and in our homelands, we practiced the magic that was strongest. Back then, magic was considered holy, and those that used magic were our priests, and they were the first of the clan leaders."
This was different than what Tooloo had told her, in tone if not in fact.
"I don't understand," Tinker asked. "I thought all magic is the same. It's just a general force harnessed by the mechanics of a spell, right?"
"Yes and no. The Wind Clan spells have been refined for millennia, but they are based on certain natural properties. The Wind Clan, according to legends, started in the high steppe lands. For countless generations, those freeborn tribes used their magic, and were slowly changed by it. That's where the genetic stamp developed that allows you to key to one set of spell stones or another."
"But didn't the Skin Clan gather all those tribes together and force them to be the same?"
"They tried. They would conquer a tribe and do all they could to stamp out its culture. Burning temples. Killing the leaders, the scholars, and the priests. Skin Clan were ruthless masters, but we were not totally helpless. We managed to hide away some of our priests, keep them hidden for centuries. We formed secret societies that evolved into the clans. As slaves all we had to call our own was our life, our honor, and our pledge to protect and to serve. But those were weapons strong enough to overthrow the Skin Clan."
"So—since everything had to be kept secret—ceremonies like weddings were a big no-no?" If so, then her marriage to Windwolf made a lot more sense.
"Yes, we could not afford to be discovered. Simple words, whispered between two people, were all we could trust."
"How did the domana end up ruling?"
"The clan leaders realized that the only way we could win against the Skin Clan was to use their greatest abilities against them. Once the Skin Clan became immortal, they ordered all their bastards killed. We started to hide away healthy babies, offering up stillborn and deformed infants in their place. They were protected by the clan so that they could protect the clan."
Tooloo had told her a version of this, only somehow not as noble, not so desperate. Quick Blade, Windwolf's great-grandfather, had been one of the babies hidden away and had died fighting for his adopted clan's freedom.
"After we won the war with the Skin Clan, we suffered a thousand years of war among ourselves. Clan against clan. Caste against caste. Elf against elf. We had lived so long in slavery that we had no idea how to be free. It was the sekasha that held us together—they demanded that the clan structure be maintained when the other castes would have abandoned it."
"I would have thought it was the domana that kept the clans intact."
"The other castes feared that we would become cruel monsters like our fathers. The sekasha guard us—from harm and from ourselves. More than one domana has been put down by his own Hand."
"Why did sekasha want the domana in charge instead of just taking power themselves?"
It was as if Windwolf never considered the "why" of it. He frowned and thought for a minute. "I am not sure. It is the way they wanted it. Perhaps it was because with the domana's access to the spell stones, the sekasha's choices were limited to putting the domana in power, destroying the stones, or killing all the domana. While they are sekasha first, they are fiercely loyal to their clans. It is their nature to be so. And as such, it would go against their nature to weaken their clan."
"So the spell stones and the domana stayed."
Windwolf nodded. "And we have had what passes as peace for thousands of years—because of the sekasha."
Tinker glanced over to where Pony and Stormsong stood. Close enough to protect. Far enough away to give her and Windwolf a sense of privacy. Who was really in charge? On the surface, it would seem she was—but if she was—why was she stuck with sekasha watching her when she would rather be alone?
"In the Westernlands, the Wind Clan has only the spell stones at Aum Renau." Windwolf returned to his magic lesson. "On the other side of the ocean, there are other sets.
"What's the range of a set?"
"The stones can reach one mei; Pittsburgh is one-third mei from the coast."
It finally explained one mysterious elfin measurement. Unlike human measurements which were exact, the mei was said to be roughly a thousand human miles but subject to change. At Aum Renau, Windwolf had shown her how he cast a trigger spell. It set up a quantum level resonance between him and the spell stones, in essence a conduit for the magic to follow. Power jumped the distance. It had been his demonstration at Aum Renau that had given her the idea of how to destroy both gates. Magic, though, could be influenced by the moon's orbit and other factors, so the exact distance would be variable—which fit the quantum-based system.
The distance limit also explained why only two clans were coming to help them deal with the oni.
"So, the Stone Clan and Fire Clan each have a set of stones within a mei?"
"And spell stones from different clans can overlap." Tinker wanted to be sure she had it right.
"Yes. The domana's genetic key determines which one they pull from. The spells are slightly different. In the terms of battle, the Stone Clan is much weaker in attack, but they are superior in defense. Their specialty is mining, farming, and architecture."
Architecture was the forefather of engineering. It kind of made sense—her being Stone Clan and a genius in the hard science.
"Do we actually fight with them?"
"Yes and no. There has been no open warfare between the clans for two thousand years, not since the Fire Clan established the monarchy. To a human, that might seem like lasting peace, but my father saw battle as a young man, and our battles have merely become more covert. Fighting is limited to assassinations and formal duels."
The concept of elves wanting her dead was somewhat unnerving.
"You are under the queen's protection," Windwolf continued. "So you will be fairly safe from the other clans for the time being. I want to teach you, however, a shielding spell so you can defend yourself."
He laughed and distanced himself from the Rolls. "Have you been taught the rituals of prayer?"
"Good. First you must find your center, just as you do for a ritual." He stood straight and took a deep cleansing breath.
"Hold your fingers thus." He held out his right hand, thumb and index rigid, middle fingers cocked oddly.
She copied the position and he made minute changes to her fingers.
"Each finger has several degrees. Laedin." He tucked her index finger into a tight curl, and then, gliding his finger along the top of hers, showed her that there needed to be a straight line from the back of her hand to the knuckle. "Sekasha." He uncurled her finger to the second knuckle and corrected a slight tendency to bend at the first knuckle. "Domana." He had to hold her finger straight so she only bent the tip. "Full royal." This was a stiff finger.
"Bows to no one," Tinker said.
"Exactly. You must be careful with your hands. A broken finger can leave you defenseless.
"The first step is to call on the spell stones. You use a full suit—king and queen." These were thumb and pinkie held straight out. "Domana, sekasha, laedin."
Tinker laughed as she tried to get her fingers to cooperate.
"There are finger games you can play to get them to do this fluidly." He patiently corrected small mistakes in her hands. "In the base spells, correct positioning is not as vital, but later, a finger out of place will totally change the effect of your spell."
"This does get easier?"
"Yes, with practice.
"To call winds and cast the spells, you need to hold your hand before your mouth." He raised his hand to his mouth and demonstrated the desired distance and then dropped his hand to continue speaking. "Don't touch your face with your hand, but you should feel as if you're almost touching your nose. Also if you were to breathe out, like you were blowing out a candle, the center point of your breath would hit this center joint of your fingers."
"Okay." She held up her hand and found it was harder to not touch her nose than she thought.
"When I was little, my brothers and I would practice fighting with each other and in the heat of battle, sometimes we ended up punching ourselves in the nose."
"Now, listen to the command to call the winds, and then to cancel." He raised his right hand to his mouth. "Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaae."
Tinker felt the tremor in the air around Windwolf, like a pulse of a bass amplifier, first against her magic sense, and then against her skin.
Mentally, she knew that his body was taking the place of a written spell; his voice started the resonance that would establish a link between him and the spell stones, over three hundred miles away. Despite everything she knew, his summoning of power out of thin air somehow seemed more magical than any act she'd ever witnessed.
He dismissed the power with another gesture and spoken command.
"Now, you try it."
She felt the magic resonance deep in her bones, and then it bloomed around her, enveloping her. Carefully she dismissed it.
"Very good. Once you tap the stones, you are connected to them. That means you need to immediately use the power, or dismiss it. Casting a spell that you hold, like a shield, keeps the connection open until you end the spell. Casting a spell like a force strike breaks the link immediately."
She nodded her understanding, trusting that when he taught her the various spells, he would tell which category they fell into.
"The shielding spell I'm going to teach you is the most basic of all the spells, but it is very powerful. With the power that the spell stones tap, it is nearly impenetrable."
"I do not know anything that could breach it, but I am afraid that you might find something—so I put in a cautionary note."
She stuck out her tongue at him. "You make me sound like a troublemaker."
"You do not make trouble—it finds you. And it is always sorry when it does."
She laughed. "Flattery will get you everywhere."
He kissed her then, making her melt against his body. They spent a few pleasant minutes kissing, and then he set her firmly down.
"You need to learn this, my love. You need to be able to protect yourself and your beholden."
"Yeah, I know. Teach away. I'm all ears."
"You summon the power and then shape it." He called forth the power, paused deliberately, and then changed the position of his hand and spoke a new command. The magic pulsing with potential changed, distorting the air around them so they stood inside a transparent sphere.
He held his stance. "Nothing can get in unless you allow it. It will last as long as you desire—but you must be careful with your movements." He moved slowly around to demonstrate the range of motion desired to maintain the shield. "Notice you must keep your hand in the correct position. If you shift your fingers or move your hand too quickly, you lose the connection for the shield."
He flapped his hands loosely and the shields vanished.
"Ugh!" Tinker cried. "It seems dangerously easy to lose your shield when you least want to."
"There are weaker shields that don't require you to hold your position. The sekasha spell, for example, allows them to continue fighting without disrupting their shield. The difference in strength is—" He paused to consider a comparison. "—an inch of steel versus a foot."
"Oooh. I see." That messed with her head. She had assumed that sekasha provided protection to the domana during battle—keeping them safe as they called down lightning and such. It seemed that the truth was that the domana were heavy tanks during fighting. They were able to take massive damage as well as deal it. It seemed that the sekasha must be for day-to-day life, allowing the domana to sleep and eat without fear.
Windwolf called up the shield again and this time showed her how to properly cancel the shield. "It is best for you to get into the habit of intentionally dropping the shield rather than just relaxing your position."
It seemed easy enough, once you got past bending your fingers into pretzels. Tinker managed to initialize the resonance conduit, trigger the shield spell, hold it for a minute, and then cancel the shield spell.
"What about air? If you keep up the shield, do you run out of air?"
"No. Air slowly leaches in, as does heat and cold. The shield will protect you for a period of time in fire, but eventually the heat and smoke will overcome you."
"Ah, good to know."
"Someone comes," Stormsong murmured softly, looking east.
The sekasha pulled in tight as they watched the eastern skyline.
"Listen," Wraith Arrow said.
After a moment, Tinker heard the low drone of engines in the distance.
"It has to be the dreadnaught," Windwolf said.
"They're coming," Tinker murmured, wondering who "they" might be.
"Yes." Windwolf tugged on her wrist. "We need to return to the enclave."
Tinker glanced at him in surprise. She would have thought they would stay to greet the newcomers.
"I am not sure who the queen has sent," Windwolf explained. "I want to look our best. Can you change quickly?"
She supposed it depended on your idea of quickly. "I think I can. What should I wear?"
"The bronze gown, please."
"That's not the most formal one I have."
He smiled warmly at her. "Yes, but I love to see you in it."
She blushed and tried not to worry about how she was going to get into the dress quickly.
As they got into the Rolls, a shadow passed overhead accompanied by the low rumble of large engines. A dreadnaught slid out from behind the hill to hover near the treeline. She'd forgotten how massive the blend of airship and armored helicopter was; it dwarfed the ironwoods, its four massive rotor blades beating a storm of leaves out into the meadow. Barrels of heavy guns bristled from the black hull, like the spiked hide of a river shark. The gossamer moored at the clearing stirred nervously in the presence of the large predator-like craft. As they watched, the mooring lines were cast off and the gossamer gave way to the dreadnaught.
The thumping of the rotors suddenly echoed into her memories of her dream. In the background, constantly, had been the same sound.
She shivered at the foreknowledge, and wondered what her dream had been trying to warn her of.
9: TRUE FLAME
At Poppymeadow's enclave, she discovered one of the sekasha had called ahead. Half the females of Windwolf's staff ambushed her at the door and hurried her to her room. She tried not to mind as they clucked and fussed over her, pulling her out of clothes, washing her face, neck, and hands, and pulling the formal gown over her head. Certainly she wouldn't be able to dress quickly without them, but their nervousness infected her.
At least she was confident about how she looked. The dress was a deep, rich, mottled bronze that looked lovely against her dusky skin. Over the bronze silk was another layer of fine, nearly invisible fabric with a green leaf design, so that when the bronze silk moved, it seemed like sunlight through forest leaves. Unfortunately, it still had long sleeves that ended in a fingerless glove arrangement and the dainty matching slippers.
"Oh please, can I wear boots?"
"You'll be outside, so the boots are appropriate," Lemonseed proclaimed, and her best suede ankle boots were produced, freshly brushed.
Tinker stepped into the boots, the females fastened the row of tiny hooks and eyes made of cling vine and ironwood down the back of the gown, and she was dressed.
Windwolf waited by the car, wearing the bronze tunic that matched her underdress and a duster of the leaf pattern of her overdress. His hair was unbound in a shimmering black cascade down his back.
"Where is your jewelry?" he asked.
"They wanted me to wear the diamonds." She held out both necklaces. "But I thought the pearls would look better. I told them I'd let you pick."
"The pearls do look better." Windwolf took the diamond necklace and fastened it in place. "But the diamonds are for formal occasions such as this. The pearls would be for more intimate times, such as a private dinner party."
Sighing, she surrendered the pearls to Lemonseed for safekeeping. "We're just going out to the clearing and saying 'howdy,' aren't we?"
"We are greeting the queen's representatives who can strip us of everything if they deem us unable to protect what we hold. Appearance is everything."
"They can't really take everything—can they?"
"It is unlikely." Windwolf swept her into the Rolls. "Please, beloved, be on your best behavior. Keep to High Elvish—and forgive me, but speak as little as possible, since your High Elvish is still weak."
Great, the queen's representatives hadn't even landed and already she was being made to feel like a scruffy junkyard dog. Her annoyance must have shown on her face, because Windwolf took her hand.
"Beloved, please, promise me to keep that cutting wit of yours sheathed."
"I promise," she growled, but silently reserved the right to kick anyone who truly pissed her off.
Tinker could see why Windwolf had opted to dress first. True, the dreadnought had landed and its many gangplanks were lowered. There was, however, no sign of the queen's representatives. A sea of Fire Clan red moved around the ship as the queen's Wyverns secured the area with slow thoroughness. Their Rolls was checked at the entrance to the clearing where Wyverns had already erected a barrier. After their identities were verified, the Rolls was directed to a shimmering white tent of fairy silk. An ornate rug already carpeted the tent. Servants were setting up a teak folding table, richly carved chairs, a map chest, and a tea service.
Leave it to elves to do everything with elegance.
The queen's Wyverns were tall, with hair the color of fire pulled back and braided into a thick cord. Like the Wind Clan sekasha, they wore vests of wyvern-scale armor, and permanent spell tattoos scrolled down their arms; both were done in shades of red that matched their hair.
All of Windwolf's sekasha had come with them and formed two walls of blue in the sea of red. Seeing all the sekasha en masse, Tinker realized not only how much alike the Wyverns looked, but also how much the Wind Clan sekasha—slightly shorter with black hair—looked the same. Only Stormsong stood out with her short blue hair.
"Are the sekasha of the various clans separate families?" Tinker whispered to Windwolf as she held out a hand to him, so he could help her out of the car. Experience had taught her that the long skirts loved to wrap tight around her ankles as she got in and out of cars and carriages—she had nearly gone face-first into the dirt several times.
"Hmm?" Windwolf steadied her as she scrambled out.
"They look alike." Once out, she twitched her skirts back into place.
"The Skin Clan liked their sekasha to match—like coach horses. They would bioengineer a generation to suit them and then breed them one to another. They would kill all the children that didn't express the desired traits, weeding out stock until it bred true, like drowning litters of puppies when a mutt gets into a pure breed's kennel."
"That's why we rebelled against them. Why we will have nothing to do with the oni who are so much like them."
"This one has the domana genome?" Lord Tomtom had said when he held her prisoner. "Perhaps I'll get my own litter on her." Tinker shivered as she remembered Tomtom's clinical gaze on her. No wonder the elves hated and feared the oni so much.
Alertness spread through the Wyverns, like ripples in a pool, moving outward. A figure in white and gold emerged from the dreadnaught. With the focus of every person on the field tight on him, the tall male strode across the meadow to join them at the tent. He wore a vest of gold scale, white leather pants, and a duster of white fairy silk that flared out behind him as he walked.
He ducked into the tent and nodded to Windwolf. "Viceroy."
Windwolf bowed. "Prince General."
Prince? He had the queen's glorious beauty—the radiant white skin, the vivid blue eyes and oh-so-gold hair twisted into a sekasha-like braid.
Tinker carefully followed Windwolf's suit as to how low to bow. Not that she needed to worry, for the elf prince didn't even glance in her direction. The duster settled around him, revealing that it had a delicate white-on-white design of wyverns and flames.
"Well, it took a hundred and ten years." Surprisingly, the prince general used Low Elvish. He had a deep voice with a hint of rasp, as if he'd spent the day shouting. "But as I said, it was only a matter of time before you would be calling for help and then I would have to come save your sorry ass. Of course you never could do things small—you had to go find a nest of oni for me to wrestle."
Windwolf grinned hugely. "True!"
"Young pup!" The prince returned the smile and gave Windwolf a rough hug. "It is good to see you again. It has been too long."
"I have been busy."
"So I've heard."
"True Flame, this is my domi, my beloved Tinker of the Wind Clan. Beloved, Prince General True Flame of the Fire Clan."
The prince turned his vivid gaze onto her and his eyebrows arched up in surprise. "So this is your child-bride. They said she was little . . ."
"Spare her your razor truth, please, True. I love her dearly and do not wish to see her hurt."
True Flame snorted. "She better learn to guard her heart. Those vultures at court will rip her to shreds."
"I don't plan to take her to court . . ."
"Can we stop talking like I am not here?" Tinker matched True Flame's Low Elvish. A look from Windwolf told her that regardless of what True Flame did, she was expected to speak High Elvish.
"Certainly, cousin," True Flame said.
"Cousin?" Tinker glanced to Windwolf in confusion.
"My mother is the youngest daughter of Ashfall," Windwolf said, and then, seeing Tinker's blank look, added. "Ashfall was our first king."
True Flame gave Windwolf a look that clearly asked, "She doesn't know that?"
"Grandfather has been dead for nae hae," Windwolf said.
"We've only had three rulers," True Flame said. "Ashfall, Halo Dust, and Soulful Ember."
"Yes, my knowledge of all things elfin is lacking," Tinker acknowledged and managed to bite down on "I'm sure, however, you're equally ignorant of buckyballs." Be nice to the male who can take everything away from you, she reminded herself, and managed to force her mouth into a slight smile. Thank gods, Windwolf seemed to be friends with him.
True Flame took in the weak smile and turned back to Windwolf with a slight look of distaste.
"Once you come to know her, True, you will see why I chose her."
True Flame clicked his tongue and waved toward the table. "Time will tell. Most of your choices continue to mystify me. Sit. Let us discuss this mess you're in."
He pulled a map from the chest and spread it on the table. It showed the city of Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas of Elfhome in detail.
"First, what is happening here?" True Flame pointed at Turtle Creek on the map. "The whole area seems—wrong."
Windwolf explained the events that had led to Tinker creating the Ghostlands.
True Flame looked at Tinker with slight surprise, sweeping a look down over her, before saying, "She's surprisingly destructive for her size."
"That's part of her appeal," Windwolf agreed.
She kicked Windwolf under the table, which earned her another warning look. She gave the look back at him. Being nice was one thing, having them gang up on her was another.
"Can the oni cross from their world to ours through this unstable area?" At least True Flame asked her directly.
"I don't know," Tinker said. "I need to study the area more. In theory, there should not be enough energy to keep it unstable."
"We think at least one creature has come through." Windwolf said. "My domi was attacked in the valley yesterday by what we believe is an oni dragon. It is unlikely that the oni could have smuggled such a creature across all the borders on Earth—so it stands to reason that it's a new arrival."
"Then we will have to wait until this area is secure"—True Flame tapped Turtle Creek on the map—"before you can continue your study."
"If the oni can come through, then we're in trouble," Tinker said. "They had an army poised to come through my pathway. With a few hours of study, I can—"
"Child, you will stay out of this valley until I give you leave," True Flame said.
"I am not a child," Tinker snapped.
"You have learned your esva?" True Flame asked.
Tinker didn't know the word. She glanced to Windwolf.
"No, she hasn't," Windwolf said quietly, as if holding in anger. "You know it takes years of study."
"A domi protects her warriors as they protect her," True Flame said. "Until we know the enemy's strength, we will not endanger any of our people by pushing them onto the front lines with a helpless child to protect."
Windwolf put a hand to her shoulder as if he expected her to say something rude. Tinker, however, found herself glancing at Stormsong and Pony standing with the Wind Clan's sekasha. She hadn't been able to protect her people—she'd nearly gotten them killed. She looked away, embarrassed by True Flame's correct reading, and that she had failed Pony and the others so completely.
True Flame took her silence as agreement and moved on. "Have you been able to determine any other oni stronghold?"
"Not yet. Tinker killed their leader, Lord Tomtom, but the size of their organization and the type of operations that they were carrying out suggested a number of subordinates, which we haven't identified or located."
True Flame grunted and signaled for tea to be poured. A servant moved forward to fill the delicate china tea bowls. After a month at Aum Renau, Tinker knew that talking was a no-no without Windwolf's glance in her direction; some elf bullshit about appreciating the act of being civilized. She distracted herself with the honey and milk. True Flame studied the map of the sprawling Earth city and expanse of Elfhome wilderness, ignoring the tea. Silence would rule until True Flame, as highest ranked person at the table, spoke.
"The oni weakness has always been their own savagery," he said finally. "To keep his underlings in check, an oni keeps his people weak and in disorder. There is no chain of command. Once you killed this Lord Tomtom, it was each dog for himself until one could emerge as strongest."
True Flame locked his gaze on Tinker. "Each elf knows who is above them, and who is beneath them, and that neither relationship is stronger than the other. Those who serve are to be protected, those who protect are to be served. We are not wild animals thinking only of ourselves, but a society that works only when we each know our position and act accordingly."
Tinker forced herself to sip her tea and chose her words carefully. "Having seen the oni up close, there is no need to convince me which is better."
She expected another angry look from Windwolf, but his eyes filled with sorrow, which only made her more uncomfortable than his annoyance would have. She focused on her tea instead.
"The rest of my force will be arriving on gossamers shortly," True Flame said. "I was afraid that you'd be overrun before they could arrive, so I came on ahead."
"Thank you," Windwolf said. "If my beloved's aim had not been true, all would have been lost before you arrived."
"Tonight, we can bivouac in this field, and tomorrow, we'll start securing the city." True Flame ran his hand over the great expanse of wilderness. "The Stone Clan is traveling under escort of my force. I will have no choice but to reward them for their service."
"I know that," Windwolf said in a carefully neutral tone.
It hurt to see him sit there and take it. She couldn't just sit there and watch him bow his head and have the Stone Clan swoop in to take what he had carved out of raw wilderness. "Wolf Who Rules didn't summon Pittsburgh here. And there was no way he could have kept the humans off Elfhome—not even killing every last human would have done that—because then there would have been retaliation. The door was open to the oni by no fault of his."
"I know that," True Flame said.
"Then why should he be punished and the Stone Clan rewarded? You claim that our society works because everyone works together. What benefit would the Stone Clan reap if the world was flooded by oni? Wolf Who Rules has put everything on the line—where is his reward?"
"Because it is the law of our people: you hold only what you can protect. It is the law that kept the peace for thousands of years."
"Beloved," Windwolf said quietly. "It is not as unfair as it seems. We are making a choice. Does the city fall to Stone Clan, who are honorable elves, or to oni?"
"I wouldn't turn over a—a—a—warg to the oni." That was an unfortunate choice of words as it reminded her of the warg at the oni camp and poor, poor—but hopefully dead—Chiyo. How could someone she hated trigger such remorse? One thing was certain—she cried much too easily lately. "This sucks," she snapped in English, wanting to blot the evidence of tears out of her eyes, but the damn fancy sleeves of her gown were in the way. She turned away from True Flame; she didn't want him to see her crying. Yeah, yeah, impress the elf on how grown up you are and bawl like a baby.
There was movement beside her and she realized Pony had moved up to her side. It took everything she had not to reach for him.
"If I may be excused." She hated that her voice shook. "I wish to go back to the enclave."
"You may go," True Flame said.
She reached for Pony's arm. He got her up and away smoothly, almost as if tears weren't blinding her. So much for appearances.
A full Hand peeled off to accompany her and Pony back to the enclave. Somehow, just having Pony there clearing a path to her bedroom refuge made it possible to blink back the tears and get herself under control. Still she was fumble-fingered with emotion as she tried to undo the hooks of her dress.
She finally gave up. "Can you undo me?"
Pony stood behind her and unhooked the tiny fasteners down the back of her dress. "Domi, do not be upset. True Flame can see that your heart is in the right place."
She groaned at the echo of what Stormsong had said to her. "They will put that on my gravestone. 'Here lies Tinker, her heart was in the right place, but her foot was in her mouth and god knows where her brain went.'"
He chuckled. "Usually we judge ourselves harsher than anyone else does."
It was a relief to let the dress slither down to the floor. She stepped out of the pool of silk and picked it up, not wanting it to be ruined. She had messed up enough things already today.
"So, Wolf Who Rules' mother is—" Tinker paused to recall the various words the elves used to denote relationships. This was made tricky because she wasn't sure if True Flame's mother or father was the connection. If True Flame was Soulful Ember's brother, then his father was King Halo Dust. What was the word for paternal aunt? "—father's sister to True Flame?"
"Yes. Longwind and Flame Heart formed an alliance of the Wind Clan and Fire Clan. Wolf Who Rules spent his doubles at court under the queen's care, learning the fire esva. It was there that he gained the favor of his royal cousins."
"What is that? Esva?" She hung up the dress and considered what was in the closet to wear—all elfin gowns and the sexy white nightgown that she didn't feel like wearing. She wanted the familiar comfort of cotton. Had her shorts dried yet?
"An esva is all the spells scribed into a clan's spell stones."
"Wait. Fire? Wolf Who Rules is Wind Clan."
"He is both. He is the only one of his family who can access both Clan's spell stones. It was expected that he would choose to be Fire Clan, but he chose Wind Clan instead."
"Why?" She found the T-shirt she had borrowed off of Oilcan and sniffed at it. It was a little stinky. She wondered when Oilcan had last washed it.
"I can guess it was because he was born and raised in the Wind Clan," Pony said. "Such things are hard to ignore, but I cannot be sure. You will have to ask him."
The bedroom door opened and another of Windwolf's sekasha, Bladebite, stepped into the room. His gaze went down over Tinker; it was the heated calculating look a male gives a female. Suddenly the bra, underwear, and diamond necklace that had been plenty of clothes with Pony felt like nothing.
She clutched the T-shirt to her chest. "What is it, Bladebite?"
"It is time you finished your First Hand. I came to offer myself to you."
Oh shit. What should she do? She'd managed to screw up every single one of these encounters over the last two months, entering relationships with a careless "yes." After the look he'd given her, though, she didn't want to say yes—but would "no" be a deadly insult? She started to turn toward Pony, but Bladebite caught her arm, forcing her to look at him.
"This is between you and I, not him." Bladebite said. "You're making your preferences fairly clear to us all, but they're not wisely thought out. I have the experience you need. You should fill your Hand with strong males, not mutts like Singing Storm."
"What the hell is wrong with her?"
"Since you obviously have no taste for Galloping Storm Horse . . ." Bladebite used Pony's true elfin name.
"I love Pony," she snapped, and blushed red as she realized it was true. When did that happen? "Things have changed since we left Aum Renau. We've been through a lot together."
"And if a fruit is tempting, you take a bite when you're most hungry."
What the hell did that mean?
"I offer all of me to you," Bladebite continued. "Do you accept?"
"I—I—I," she stammered. I don't know what the hell to say. The bedroom's dressing mirror was behind Bladebite. She could see Pony; his jaw was clenched but he made no move to interfere. Apparently Bladebite was right—it was up to her to say yes or no. Her reflection reinforced that she was nearly naked, the glitter of diamonds the only thing visible besides the T-shirt clutched to her chest. She never thought of herself as short, either, until something like this forcibly reminded her that the elves were all a foot taller.
"I can't make that decision now," she finally managed to force out. "I'm upset and not thinking clearly."
"You don't need to think. Just accept me."
Not think? Gods, he might as well be saying not breathe. "No." And then seeing the look on his face. "Not now. I'm too upset."
"We can't afford another spectacle—" Bladebite started.
But apparently she'd said the magic words. Pony's "on duty" light went on, and he shifted from behind Tinker to between her and Bladebite.
"Tinker ze domi" Pony used her most formal title and High Elvish, "said that she is upset and will decide later. Please, Bladebite, go."
The words were polite but Pony's tone was cold as steel.
Bladebite gaze locked with Pony's. For a moment, she was afraid that the older sekasha would draw his sword. He nodded though and bowed slightly to her. "Good night then, ze domi."
She started to shake when the door closed behind him.
"I am sorry, domi. Until you refused him, I could not act."
"Was I right to say no?"
"I am disappointed only in him. He has the years to know that you were upset and could not make such decisions."
She got dressed, annoyed that her hands still shook. Why was she veering all over the place emotionally? Maybe she was going to get her period. Usually she wasn't this hormonal, but she hadn't had one as an elf yet. Oh, she hoped that wasn't the case; thousands of years like this would drive her mad. How often did elves get periods? It had been over two months since her last one as a human. Oh gods, what if she was pregnant? Of course that made her feel weepy again.
"I need something to drink," she said. "Can you ask Poppymeadow to find us a bottle of—" What was that stuff called again? "Ouzo?" Wait, if she was pregnant, should she be drinking? And if she was just getting her period, what did elves use? Pads? Tampons? Magic? Hopefully a period only lasted the normal five days—surely even elves couldn't do—that—for more than a week. Damn it, when Windwolf made her an elf, he should have given her an owner's manual for her new body.
She fumbled with her necklace and failed to get it off. "Oh please, Pony, get this off me."
Pony undid the necklace. "I will get you something to eat and drink, and then perhaps you should take a nap. You have been through much lately, domi, and you are worn down."
"I want to practice magic." She needed to learn how to protect her people.
"It would be difficult and dangerous the way you are now."
She supposed that was true. "Okay, okay. Something to eat and a nap—and I need to talk to Stormsong about—female—things."
10: STORM WARNINGS
Wolf had watched his domi retreat with concern. He had expected her to be gnawing at the prince's ankles instead of breaking down into tears. He felt guilty for chiding her as he had. The oni must have affected her more deeply than he originally thought. He felt badly too that he had been pleased that she hadn't bedded Little Horse while they were prisoners together; he wanted her to himself as long as possible. Perhaps, if she had slept with Little Horse, she would have fared better.
At least she had turned to her beholden when she lost control of her emotions. As much as Wolf wished he could have taken her back to the enclave and comforted her, all of his people and the humans of Pittsburgh needed him to stay and deal with Prince True Flame.
Is this how the humans lived all their life? Having things that they desperately wanted to do—comfort their love ones, teach them what they needed to know—but with no time to do it? No wonder they seemed to rail at life so.
True Flame sat watching him, expression carefully neutral. "Being the pivot—" Wolf sighed and shook his head. "It has subjected her to extraordinarily difficult choices. She's only had hours to recover her center."
"This is recovered?"
"No, and it worries me."
True Flame glanced away, as if embarrassed by what he saw on Wolf's face. "Forgiveness, Wolf. We get along because we both have no need for empty politeness – but I remember now that politeness can render much needed gentleness to the soul. I will keep my sword sheathed from now on."
"There will be nothing that I can do when the Stone Clan arrives except to remind them that she is under my sister's protection. She will have to interact with them, and they will take advantage of her."
Wolf nodded unhappily. "It will be like trying to keep wargs from the lambs at this point. I wish there was some way I could keep her safe until she has had time to heal from whatever the oni have done to her."
True Flame shook his head. "They'll arrive tomorrow with my troops. I can delay the aumani a day, on the pretense of giving them time to settle in."
"Thank you." In their current situation, a day was the most he could have hoped for. "Who have they sent?"
"Earth Son, Jewel Tear, and Forest Moss."
Wolf breathed out; the threesome was tailored for hostile opposition to him. He knew nothing of Forest Moss and thus could not foresee what danger lay there. Judging by the others, there was a good possibility, however, that this was an ancient member of the Stone Clan, to offset Wolf's youth. Earth Son's father was one of the three children of King Ashfall used to ally the strongest of the clans to the crown via marriage. Obviously Earth Son's inclusion was to eliminate Wolf's advantage with True Flame—at least in theory.
The Stone Clan had always misunderstood the nature of the alliance, and considered it a failure. The alliance had only produced Earth Son. While he showed his father's gene type in his height, his eyes, and his temper, his gene expression did not include attunement to the spell stones. Earth Son could not use the fire esva. When Earth Son came to court, he treated his Fire Clan cousins as strangers, and was regarded as such by them.
In comparison, Wolf's parents produced ten children, half of which inherited their mother's genome and pledged to the Fire Clan. Wolf grew up seeing the royal family as an extension of his own and when he went to court, he fell under his older brothers' and sisters'protection. Earth Son seemed to fail to understand the slight differences in their position. He only saw the younger elf being rewarded with favor he thought he was due, and held it against Wolf.
The Stone Clan could barely find a delegate more ill-suited to deal with Wolf—but they had managed. Wolf spent a decade at summer court, thinking he and Jewel Tear were soulmates, the other half of each other, and all the other lyrical nonsense you thought while blindly in love. A hundred years and meeting Tinker had taught him that he'd been wrong about the entire nature of love. He and Jewel Tear had drifted apart soon after he came of age and his ambitions took him to the wilderness of the Westernlands. That the Stone Clan included her in the delegation probably meant he misjudged their relationship.
So these three were coming to his holdings and dealing with his people?
True Flame looked out at the sod-covered clearing and the dense forest of tower ironwoods beyond. "What in the god's name were you thinking of, leaving everything behind for this wilderness?"
"I was thinking of leaving everything behind for this wilderness."
"I've never understood why you're wasting yourself here."
"What would I be doing at court? Nothing has changed there since we last interacted with humans. We had completely stagnated. We had the same base of technology as the humans, and yet we didn't develop the car, or the computer, the telephone, or the camera."
"We have no need of them."
"It doesn't bother you that we sat completely still for hundreds of years while they raced ahead?"
"Less than three hundred years, pup. It passed like a lazy summer afternoon in my life."
Wolf clenched his jaw against this. He'd heard the like all his life from elves younger than True Flame's two thousand years. "Every agricultural advance since the days of poking holes in the ground with sharp sticks, we've stolen from the humans. The plow. Crop rotation. Fertilization. You're old enough to remember the great famines."
True Flame gave him a look that would have silenced him as a child.
Wolf refused to be rebuked. The events of the last three decades had proved him right. "It's as if we get locked into one mind-set—"this is how the world is," and can't conceive or desire something more. I tracked back all our advances while I was at court—"
"I've heard this theory of yours, Wolf."
"Have you? Have you really listened to my words and thought it through?"
"True, there were times of famine, and yes, we went to Earth and saw how to increase crop production and put those techniques to use. But we have lived in peace for thousands of years with all that we could want—why should we clutter up our lives with gadgets?"
Wolf sighed. "You never listened. Not to anything I ever said, did you? I told you over a hundred years ago that sooner or later, the humans would come to us. And I'm telling you now, it's only a matter of time before another race finds us."
One instructional conversation with Stormsong, one stiff drink, one mystery meal of panfried wild game (what in gods' name had drumsticks that size?), and one short nap, and Tinker was feeling much better.
According to Stormsong, her emotional swings were from exhaustion. It would be a year before Tinker would need to worry about a period. Nor, Stormsong said as she poured a generous round of ouzo, could Tinker be pregnant. "Drink, eat, sleep," Stormsong repeated Pony's advice, only more succinctly.
It was fairly clear that discussions had taken place while Tinker was asleep. There was an undercurrent running through the sekasha and they were metaphorically tiptoeing around her as if she would break. She wasn't sure which was more annoying: that they felt that they needed to tiptoe, or that they were doing such a horribly obvious job at it. At least it kept Bladebite from hounding her, although he was clearly sulking.
Much to Tinker's disgust, Stormsong coaxed her out to the enclave's bathhouse. She went only because the enclave had no showers and the last time she done more than wallow in a sink was at the hospice. She was starting to stink even to herself. She thought she hated elfin bathing—the cold water prescrub gave new meaning to the word unpleasant—but when she discovered that the bathhouse was both communal and mixed sex, she decided to loathe elfin bathing. As far as she was concerned, if the gods wanted them naked, they wouldn't have invented clothing.
The bath at least was stunning, done in jewel-toned mosaics with marble columns and a great skylight of beveled glass. Minerals had been added to the hot water, so it was hazy to the point that it gave a small level of privacy. And the sekasha seemed well-practiced in using the towels to keep themselves discreet until the water covered them. Thankfully Bladebite didn't join them, though, surprisingly, Pony did. The eye candy of Pony covered only by steaming water, however, didn't outweigh the negative of being the shortest, darkest, smallest-breasted female present.
"Relax." Stormsong had proved to be naturally a pale-white blond—a fact Tinker hadn't really wanted to know. "We won't eat you."
"At least we won't." Rainlily smiled with a glance toward Pony.
Tinker stood up, realized that she was flashing them all, and sat back down to hide in the hazy water. "I am not amused."
Stormsong splashed Rainlily. "Shush, you."
"If we don't tease her," Rainlily said, "she'll think elves are just as prudish as humans. I've never understood how they can be so blatant with their sexual imagery, and yet in relationships with one another, they are so narrow-minded. As if a heart can hold only one love at a time, and you have to empty out one before there's room for another."
"Let her cope with one thing at a time." Pony watched Tinker with a worried gaze.
"I'm fine," she told him and wondered why she had to say that so often lately.
"One lover gets boring after thirty or forty years," Rainlily said. "It's like peanut butter on a spoon, it's really good, but with chocolate sometimes, it's even better."
Tinker knew that elves loved peanut butter as much as they loved Juicy Fruit gum and ice cream. Considering her experience with the gum, she really had to track down a jar of peanut butter.
Stormsong moaned at the suggestion of peanut butter and chocolate. She added, "Or peanut butter and strawberry jam on fresh bread."
"Peanut butter on toast." Sun Lance held up her hand as if she held a piece of toasted bread by its crust. "Where the bread is crunchy and the peanut butter is all hot and runny."
"Raisin bread toast." Tinker modified Sun Lance's suggestion to her favorite way to eat peanut butter before she became an elf.
"Peanut butter, pretzels, chocolate," Rainlily listed out, "and that marshmallow fluff all mixed together."
"Oh, that explains Cloudwalker and Moonshadow at the same time," Stormsong murmured.
"Nyowr," Rainlily growled with a smile, which was the Elvish version of a cat's meow.
"Peanut butter on apple slices," Sun Lance said.
"On a banana," Tinker said.
"On Skybolt," Rainlily said knowingly.
"Oh yes, that's nice," Stormsong agreed.
Tinker was going to need a scorecard to track the sekasha's relationships.
"Peanut butter ice cream," Pony said.
"Peanut butter ice cream!" The females all sighed.
"Unless domi takes another sekasha, though, then her options are limited." Rainlily pointed out. "There's Pony, and then there's Pony."
"That's still peanut butter and—" Stormsong thought a moment, before finishing. "—virgin honey."
Rainlily eyed Pony and smiled. "Definitely virgin honey."
Pony blushed and looked down.
"And Wolf Who Rules is peanut butter ice cream," Sun Lance said.
That triggered a chorus of agreement from the females. Tinker had one moment of feeling pleased that she married the prize male and then realization hit her like a two-by-four to the head. She gasped out in shock.
"Domi?" All four sekasha instantly reacted, moving toward her as they scanned the building for enemies.
"Windwolf! You've all slept with him?"
The female warriors exchanged glances.
"Well?" she pressed.
"Yes, domi," Stormsong said quietly. "But not since he's met you."
Was that really supposed to make her feel better? Well, giving it a moment to sink in, yes it did. She knew that Windwolf had to have had lovers before her—she just didn't expect to be naked in a tub with them at any point. There were two other female sekasha. Tinker supposed they were ex-lovers too. Windwolf's household numbered seventy-five—she didn't even know how many were female, but most of the sizeable kitchen staff was. The possible number staggered her. "Any females from the rest of the household?"
The sekasha blinked at her in surprise.
"No, domi, that wouldn't be proper." Was it a good thing or a bad that Stormsong was keeping to Elvish?
"Only the sekasha are naekuna," Pony explained.
"Naekuna." Pony sat up slightly in the water to point at a tattoo on his hipbone. She blushed and looked away. "We can turn on and off our fertility."
"It is considered best if a domi and domou chooses among their beholden sekasha for their lovers." Stormsong had a similar tattoo on her hip. "The security of the household is not compromised and we're naekuna."
Tinker had one moment of relief until she realized that she had to interact with the five female sekasha on a daily basis. She stared at Stormsong, Sun Lance, and Rainlily, unsure how to cope with the sudden knowledge that these females had slept with Windwolf. They knew what a good lover he was—had probably helped him perfect his technique. What if—as the whole peanut butter conversation had suggested—Windwolf wanted variety? How did one deal with that? The crushing weight of inevitability that you would have to share? With such drop-dead beautiful females no less?
Elves always were so focused on today. You couldn't get them to talk about the past. Nae hae, too many years to count, it happened long ago, why bother? The future was the future, why stress over it bearing down on you?
Given long enough time, the smallest probability became reality. Sooner or later, you would live through all the possible futures. Nor would the past really be a true indicator of the future as you worked through one unlikely chance to the next.
Did the elves wear blinders just to keep sane?
"Are you all right?" Pony asked.
"Um, let me get back to you about that."
"Ze domou." Wraith Arrow was operating at maximum respect now that the Fire Clan had arrived. Or more specifically, since the Wyverns had arrived. Wolf found himself wondering if perhaps the sekasha had chosen their king based on his Hands rather than his clan. "Forest Moss is one of those who traveled to Onihida when the pathway was found. He and the sekasha, Silver Vein in Stone, were the only two who managed to survive their capture by the oni."
At one time, certain caves and rock formations had created pathways that let a person walk from one world to the next. Anyone without the ability to detect a ley line could search closely for the pathway, even to the point of stepping in and out of worlds, and never find it. The dangers of traveling to Earth were great. The pathways themselves came and went like the tides of the ocean, apparently affected by the orbit of the moon. Earth had no magic, leaving the domana powerless and the sekasha without their shields. Still, all the clans sent out domana and their sekasha to barter silk and spices for steel and technology. To circumvent the dangers, the pathways were mapped out carefully, and traders crossed back to the safety of Elfhome as often as possible. In one remote area on Earth, a new pathway was discovered, and eagerly explored.
Unfortunately it was a pathway that led to Onihida. Of the twenty that went on the expedition, only two returned to Elfhome.
Wolf considered what he knew of that doomed expedition, which was very little since it happened before he was born. Unlike humans who seemed to be driven to chronicle their life and make it public, elves kept such things private. Everything he knew about the oni and Onihida came from questioning his First Hand. He had selected Wraith Arrow and the others for their knowledge of the humans and Earth, not thinking he'd ever need their familiarity with the oni.
"So you've met him?" Wolf asked.
Wraith nodded. "They had tortured him, healed him, and then tortured him again. It broke his mind."
That was two hundred fifty years ago. Had Forest Moss recovered?
It made Wolf wonder about Tinker and her time with the oni. What had they done to her to change her so much? Wolf felt a wave of sadness and anger. His domi had been so brave, trusting, and strong.
Wraith continued his report. "Silver Vein did not look to Forest Moss. The Stone domou had a vanity Hand, which he lost. Last that I heard, he had not gained another Hand."
"He's coming here without sekasha?"
What game was this? Why include someone who lacked the most basic abilities of building a household? Did this mean that the Stone Clan didn't intend to create holdings in Pittsburgh?
* * *
"I'm not sure you should be trying to call the spell stones." Stormsong was the only one who actually voiced the doubt all of them were clearly thinking as they followed her through the enclave's enclosed gardens.
"I'm fine," she said for what seemed the millionth time in the last three days.
"You spent a month working around the clock," Stormsong started. "And you haven't—"
"Shhh!" Tinker silenced her and worked to find her center. Getting her fingers into the full-suit position took a moment of concentration. Bringing her hand to her mouth, she vocalized the trigger word. The magic spilled around her, pulsing with potential. Carefully, she shifted her fingers to the shield position and spoke the trigger. The magic wrapped around her, distorting the air.
"Yes!" Without thinking, she threw up her hands in jubilation and the shield vanished. "Oops!"
The sekasha were too polite to comment. Finding her center was harder while burning with embarrassment. Her heart still leapt up when she called up her shield but she managed not to move this time. She held it for several minutes and then practiced at looking around, and then moving, without forgetting to maintain her hand positions.
"Okay," Tinker said. "Can I talk? Can you hear me?"
Pony grinned at her. "We can hear you. As long as you don't have your hands near your mouth, you can talk—but it's not always wise."
She dismissed the magic. Only after the power drained completely away did she celebrate. Laughing, she hugged Pony. "I did it!"
He surprised her by hugging her tightly back. "Yes, you did."
The walkie-talkie chirped and Stormsong answered with a "Yes? It is nothing—she is only practicing."
Tinker grimaced. She had forgotten Windwolf would notice her tapping the spell stones. "That's Wolf Who Rules?"
"Yes, ze domi," Stormsong said.
"Sorry, Windwolf!" Tinker called. "But I did it! I called the shields!"
Stormsong listened for a moment and then said, "He says, 'Very good,' and wants to know if you plan to continue practicing?"
"For a while." It occurred to her that the stones might only support one user. "That isn't a problem for him—is it?"
"No, domi." Pony answered the question. "Both of you can use the stones at the same time."
Stormsong listened and then said good-bye. "Wolf Who Rules merely wanted to be sure you were fine. Practice away, he said."
So she did until she momentarily forgot how to dispel the magic. When at last the magic washed away, Pony came and took her hands in his.
"Please, domi, go to bed. You can do more tomorrow."
Tinker woke from her nightmare to a dark bedroom. For a moment, she couldn't figure out where she was. She'd fallen asleep in so many places lately. She eyed the poster bed, wood paneling, and open window—oh yes—her bedroom at Poppymeadow's. Even awake, her dreams crowded in on her. She put out a hand and found Windwolf's comforting warmth. It was all she needed to push away the darkest memories.
Sighing, she snuggled up to her husband. This was one of the unexpected joys of being married, her secret treasure. She had never realized how lonely she was at night. Back in her loft, any light noise had her out of bed, and once awake, she often found herself getting dressed and wandering out into the sleeping city, in search of something she'd couldn't name or identify. Before Windwolf, if asked, she would have said she was perfectly happy—but if she had been, how could she be so much happier now?
She was just noticing something hard digging into her side, when she realized it was Pony beside her, not Windwolf. While Pony wore his loose pajamas, he slept on top of the blankets beside her, instead of under them with her. It was his sheathed ejae beneath her—she'd rolled on top of it when she cuddled up to him.
"Pony?" She tugged the sword out from under her, dropped it behind him. His presence confused her.
"What is it, domi?" he asked sleepily.
It took her another minute to sort through memories and dreams to know what reality should be. They weren't still prisoners of the oni and her husband really should be in bed with her. "Where's Windwolf?"
Pony rubbed at his face. "Hmmm? He's probably still with Prince True Flame. There was much to do before the troops arrived tomorrow."
"I had a bad dream about Windwolf. He couldn't see Lord Tomtom. I could but the black willows were holding me—I couldn't move—couldn't warn him."
"Hush." Pony hugged her loosely. "Tomtom is dead. Wolf Who Rules is safe. It was only a dream—nothing more. Go back to sleep."
"What if the oni attacked?" She started to get up but he tightened his hold.
"No, no, Wolf would want you to sleep. You're exhausted, domi. You're going to make yourself sick if you do not sleep."
She groaned because she was so very tired but the nightmare pressed in on her. "I can't go back to sleep. Windwolf could be in trouble."
"How do you know? We were asleep. He could be fighting for his life right now." Oh gods, she was turning into such a drama queen. Go to bed, go to bed, go to bed, she told herself, but she couldn't banish the memories.
"Oh, domi," Pony crooned. "When I was little and my mother was out with Longwind—Windwolf's father—I'd be worried just like you are now. And my father would say, 'Look at the clear sky, see the stars? If the Wind Clan fought tonight, the wind would throw clouds around, and lightning would be everywhere.'"
She relaxed onto his bare shoulder, gazing out the bedroom window at the peach trees beyond, standing still against a crystalline sky. "What did you do when it stormed?"
Pony chuckled, a good warm sound that did much to banish away her fears. "Ah, you've spotted the weakness in my father's ploy."
It puzzled her that his mother was out with Longwind when he was fighting until she realized that both of Pony's parents would have been sekasha. Pony's mother must be beholden to Windwolf's father.
"What is your mother like?" she asked.
"Otter Dance? She is sekasha," Pony said as if that explained everything. Perhaps it did. "We of the Wind Clan sekasha are known to be playful and lucky where the Fire Clan sekasha are considered hot tempered and rude. When we come together in large cities, we of the Wind Clan like to gamble and win, and the Fire Clan tends to lose and start fights. Almost every night ends in a brawl, everyone black-and-blue."
He smelt wonderful. His braid was undone and his hair was a cascade of black in the moonlight. As if it had a mind of its own, her hand drifted down over his chest, feeling the hard muscles under the silk shift.
"Hmmm," was all she managed as exhaustion—thankfully—was beating out desire.
"I do not know which my mother loves more: to gamble or brawl." Pony went on to expand on his mother's adventures in both, but she slipped back to sleep.
Tinker woke twice more that night. The second time was another nightmare, this of being chased by Foo lions through the ironwoods. Pony was there again to soothe away her fear. The third time was Windwolf finally returning home, but by then she could barely stir.
"How is she?" Windwolf whispered in the darkness.
"She woke twice with nightmares of oni." Pony's voice came from near the door.
The bed shifted with the changing of the guard.
"Thank you, Little Horse, for keeping her well."
"I wish I could do more," Pony whispered. "But I could not keep the dreams from her. May you have more luck than I. Good night, Brother Wolf."
11: PAPER SCISSORS STONE
"I would be happier if one of the other heads took them." Ginger Wine eyed the trucks arriving with the Stone Clan luggage.
Wolf nodded, staying silent. In truth, none of the heads of households wanted the Stone Clan taking up occupancy at their enclave. Ginger Wine, however, lost the decision because not only was she was the juniormost head, but her enclave was also the smallest, meaning she would put the smallest number of Wind Clan folk out when the Stone Clan turned her enclave into a temporary private residence. The households of the three incoming domana were reported to be fewer than forty people combined. Ginger Wine's enclave had fifty guest beds, thus a loss of only ten beds.
"I've never hosted someone from the Stone Clan before," Ginger Wine said. "I hope they eat our food. We don't have spices or the pans to cook Stone dishes, but I will not have them in my kitchens."
Wolf could not understand the fanaticism with which the enclaves defended their kitchens. He had had to settle several disputes between his own household and Poppymeadow's. He had learned, though, that there was only one correct answer. "If they will not eat, they will not eat."
Ginger Wine chewed on one knuckle, watching as the luggage was unloaded onto the pavement. The first trunks off, logically for a war zone, were the sekasha's secondary armor. Sword and bow cases followed. As Ginger Wine's people struggled to lift the shipping containers holding spell arrows, she murmured around her finger, "I want double my normal remuneration."
Wolf had arranged to have his Rolls Royces ferry the Stone Clan domana from the palace clearing. The first pulled up in front of Ginger Wine's and a single male got out. As there were no sekasha attending the male, this had to be Forest Moss. Wolf couldn't tell if the male was pure Stone Clan genome. Forest Moss had the clan's compact build and dusky skin tone. His hair, though, fell shocking white against his dark skin. The lids of his left eye were sewn shut and concave, following the bone line of his skull, showing that the eye had been fully removed. Scars radiated around the empty socket, as if something thin and heated had been dragged from the edge of his face to just short of the eye. The scar at the corner of the eye, however, continued into his eye. After a score of near misses, that last one had burned out the eye.
The right side of Moss' face was smooth and whole, including the brown eye that glared at Wolf.
"Forest Moss on Stone." Moss gave a coldly precise bow.
"Wolf Who Rules Wind."
Moss' one good eye flicked over him and scanned the sekasha. Without the matching eye, Wolf found it difficult to read the male. "Yes, you are. And these are your lovelies. Very, very nice."
Wolf took the comment as a compliment and acknowledged it with a nod. There seemed, however, something more to it—like oil mixed in water, invisible until they separated.
"Otter Dance's son," Forest Moss said. "He comes of age this year, does he not?"
What did this battered soul want of Little Horse? "Yes."
"Tempered Steel." Forest Moss named Little Horse's paternal grandfather as he held up his left hand. He lifted his right hand, saying, "And Perfection." Who was Otter Dance's mother. He put his hands together and kissed his fingertips. "What a creature the Wind Clan has crafted."
It had been a mistake to respond to Forest Moss' first comment; Wolf would not repeat his mistake. While the sekasha could be ruthlessly practical, it was insulting to suggest anything but chance had brought the two most famous sekasha bloodlines together in one child.
Wolf gave him a hard stare, warning him not to continue on the subject.
"What a look! But I am mad. Such looks are seen only by my left eye." Forest Moss touched his ruined cheek to indicate his empty eye socket. He cocked his head, as something occurred to him. "The last thing I saw from this eye was Blossom Spring from Stone being drowned in the pisshole by her First, Granite. The oni had raped all the females from the start. The sekasha had their naekuna but the domana—" Forest Moss sighed and whispered. "Those mad dogs are so fertile they can even spawn themselves on us. Of course, a half-breed child would have given the oni access to the domana genome—so the sekasha had to act. The oni had taken Granite's arms and right leg, one bone at a time. They thought they had made him helpless, but still he managed to pin Blossom facedown in the sewage. She thrashed beneath him for so long—I would have thought drowning was faster. It was quiet. So very quiet. None of us daring to say a word until it was over. Shhhhh. Quiet as mice, lest the oni hear and realize that their rabid seed had taken and carry her off to bear their puppies."
Wolf steeled himself to keep from stepping back a step from the elf. Was Forest Moss as mad as he seemed, or was this an act to let him be as rude as he wanted? Or was the male deluding only himself, thinking that he was "acting"?
"What of your domi?" Forest Moss leaned close to whisper, his one eye bright. "Did those rabid beasts fuck her? Fill her up with their seed? Will there be puppies to drown in the pisspot?"
Wolf would not validate this conversation by explaining that Tinker would be infertile from her transformation long after the danger of pregnancy was past—regardless of what the oni did to her. "You will not speak of my domi again."
"I am not the one to fear. All your lovelies standing around you are the ones to fear. They hold our lives in their holy hands, judging every breath we take. They have to be strong because we're so weak. I fully expect that someday one of them will decide I'm too damaged to live."
Forest Moss laughed bitterly. "Yes, yes, actually, soon would be nice. I'm too afraid to do it myself. I am a coward, you know. Everyone knows. That's why I have no sekasha."
Ginger Wine had heard the whole exchange. A gracious host, she bowed elegantly and offered to escort Forest Moss to his room, but a tightness around her eyes meant she was keeping fury in check. Wolf's people might not know Tinker, but she was his domi, and they wouldn't take criticism of her lightly.
While he suspected the humans might blame Tinker for Pittsburgh being stranded, the elves always knew it was only a matter of time before the odd cycle of Shutdown and Startup would end. Humans never continued anything for long. As long as the Ghostlands didn't present them with more problems, most elves would see Tinker's solution as a good one.
Alertness went through his Hand, and Wolf turned to find Jewel Tear standing there.
She wore the deep green that always looked so beautiful on her. Her dark hair was braided with flowers and ribbons, most likely taking an hour to create. She had two spell spheres orbiting her. One cooled the air about her. The other sphere triggered favorite scent memories in those around her. The spheres always had made him leery. He knew that it was impossible for the spheres to collide with anything, but he always flinched when they got too near his head. Nor did it help that the one always made Jewel Tear smell like his blade mother, Otter Dance.
Around them the sekasha acknowledged each other's presence and waged their still and silent dominance battle. Not that it was much of a contest—Jewel had only been able to recruit a vanity hand of recent doubles. Against his First Hand, they were just babies.
"Wolf Who Rules Wind." Jewel Tear smiled warmly at him, and bowed lower than necessary, almost spilling her breasts out of her bodice.
"Jewel Tear on Stone." He bowed to her, wondering what her flagrant display meant. Was this strictly a personal invitation, however improper, or was the Stone Clan making use of her?
She stepped forward, rising up on her toes as if she meant to kiss him. He stopped her with a look. The spell spheres orbited them as she stood frozen in place.
"Wolf," she whimpered.
"You are not my sekasha, nor are you my domi."
"I should be!" She jerked her chin up and glared at him. "You asked me! I told you that I needed time to consider it. I finally make my decision, pack my household to join you here in the Westernlands, and I get your letter saying that you were taking a human—a human—as your domi."
"I gave you a hundred years. When I was at court last, thirty years ago, we did not even speak to one another."
"I—I was busy, as were you. And a letter? You could not come and tell me yourself?"
"There was no time." He wondered what she hoped to gain with this tactic. He would not break his vow to Tinker, no matter how guilty Jewel tried to make him feel. Because Jewel never responded, she had no legal recourse.
She reached out to neaten his sleeve. "We courted for years—that slow exquisite dance of passion. The boat rides on Mist Lake with the whiting of swans. The picnics in the autumn woods. The winter masquerades. We took the time that is proper, to learn each other, to know that we were right for each other. What do you know of this—this—female? How can you know anything?"
He knew even if he tried to explain how a lifetime of understanding could be distilled out of twenty-four hours, she would not believe him. The elves never did—with the exception of Little Horse. "I knew enough. This is not court, where you have eternity to decide, because nothing changes. I was willing to risk whatever may come because if I did not put out my hand, and take her then, she would have been lost to me forever."
"What of your commitment to me?"
Wolf controlled a flash of anger. "I waited. You did not answer. I moved on."
"I needed time to think!" she cried and then looked annoyed that she had raised her voice. "I thought you knew me well enough to understand my position. I do not have your resources as the son of the clan leader—a favored cousin to the queen. You would have been forgiven for taking a domi outside your clan. Both Wind and Fire want you merely because of the other clan's interest; Wind would never turn you out for the Fire to take in. I do not have your luxury. I had to consider long and hard my responsibilities to my household before committing to you. I couldn't risk not being able to support them if neither Wind nor Stone sponsored me."
"If you had come to me, told me your concerns, I could have done something to guarantee that you would always have Wind Clan sponsorship." Even as he said it, though, he knew that it was better that she hadn't. He had made a mistake in asking her to be his domi. When he brought her to the Westernlands, dismay had spread across her face when she realized they would spend the rest of their lives in the wilderness, far from court. It had opened his eyes; he had fooled himself about how well they suited each another. He'd been willing to honor that commitment a hundred years ago, even after that realization. Even as recently as thirty years ago, he might have still taken her as his domi. In the last two decades, though, he had considered himself released of his pledge.
Jewel tried to make it all seem his fault. "I was supposed to trust you to take care of me when you couldn't be bothered to explain anything to me? You would go off and leave me with no idea what you had planned, what you were doing, when you were going to come back."
"I trusted you to do what you needed to do. I thought you trusted me."
A look flashed across her face before being hidden away, but he knew her too well not to recognize it and could guess her thoughts. One thing you learned well at court was to trust no one. Not only did she not trust him, she thought him weak for expecting it.
But this left one question. "What made you finally decide?" he asked.
Her nostrils flared and she glanced away from him. "Things have not gone well for me. Some of my ventures failed, I had miscalculated the risks involved on one, and in trying to cover my losses, things—cascaded. I was forced to give up my holdings." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "My household was losing faith in me."
So coming to him was not an act of love but of desperation. It would also explain what she was doing here now—without holdings, she would lose her household and then her clan sponsorship. Jewel Tear was too proud and ambitious to live under someone else's rule. If she was that destitute, though, she wouldn't have the funds to set up a holding at Pittsburgh; it could only mean that the Stone Clan chose her and advanced her stake money.
Did the Stone Clan think that if something happened to Tinker, he would turn to Jewel Tear? How far were they willing to go to put their theory to the test? He knew Jewel well enough to know that she would let nothing stand in the way of her ambitions. That had been one of the things he loved about her.
Tinker wished the machine room didn't feel so much like a trap. Whoever designed the room had never considered that there would be anything as dangerous as the black willow between the back room and the front door. Being around the black willow made everyone nervous. There were no signs, however, of it reviving despite a full day of summer heat. Oilcan rotated the steel drums of metal filings, taking the ones saturated with magic to some place to drain, and replaced them with fresh drums. Tinker could see no overflow of magic. Still, the sekasha all kept their shields activated just to use up local ambient magic.
She had the old spell jackhammered out of place. She was now carefully prepping the site to lay down the new spell and cement it into place.
Stormsong settled beside her, her sheathed ejae across her knees, her shields a blue aura around her. "Do you mind if we talk?"
"Isn't that what we're doing?"
Stormsong gave a slight laugh, and then continued with great seriousness. "It's not my place to advise you. It should be Pony, as your only beholden, or Wraith Arrow, who is Windwolf's First, but—" Stormsong sighed and shook her head. "Wraith Arrow won't cross that line, and Pony—that boy has a serious case of hero worship for you."
"You can do no wrong in his eyes. You know all, see all, understand all—which leaves you up the shit creek because you really don't and he won't tell you squat, because he thinks you already know."
"So you're going to tell me?"
"You'd rather walk around with your head up your ass and not know it?"
Tinker groaned. "What am I doing wrong now?"
"You need to choose four more sekasha, at minimum."
Tinker sighed. "Why? Things are working fine this way."
"No, they're not, and you're the only one that doesn't see that. For instance, Pony is just a baby to the rest of us."
"He's at least a hundred." She knew he was an adult, although just barely, like she had been as an eighteen-year-old human. Unfortunately, now she fell into a nebulous zone of being just barely adult for years and years.
"He just left the doubles this year." Meaning last year, he could use two numbers to indicate his age. "Only half of Windwolf's sekasha are in the triples—the rest are older."
"How old are you?" Tinker was fairly sure Stormsong was one of the younger sekasha. She was starting to be able to look at elves and see their age indicators. It was odd, to have her concept of Windwolf slowly change from "adult" to "her age" as her perception of all elves changed.
"I'm two hundred." Which made her Pony's age, because to the elves that hundred year difference barely counted.
"So we're all approximately the same age."
"You wish." Stormsong took out a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and offered her a stick. "Yeah, physically Pony and I are like human teenagers, but we've still had a hell of a lot longer than you to figure out people."
Tinker took the gum and let the taste explode in her mouth. "What's your point? Is Pony old or young?"
"That is my point." Stormsong took a piece for herself and put away the pack. "He's the youngest of the sekasha, but he's your First."
"Are you trying to confuse me?"
"Anything regarding you, Pony is in charge, but he's the youngest of the sekasha."
This was starting to make her head hurt. "Are you talking . . . seniority?"
"Seniority. Seniority." Stormsong took out a small dictionary, flipped through it, and read off the entry for seniority. "Precedence of position, especially precedence over others of the same rank by reason of a longer span of service."
"Oh that's not fair," Tinker complained. "You get a dictionary. I want one for Elvish."
"We don't have such things." Stormsong put away the dictionary. "They would be too useful."
Tinker had to put "Elvish dictionary" on her project list.
"Yes," Stormsong continued. "Pony needs seniority over those he commands, which he doesn't have because none of us are yours. What's more, when the bullets start to fly, we need to know which way to jump. Pony doesn't need to think. But the rest of us—we have pledged our lives to Windwolf; it's him we should be thinking of—but we know that only Pony is watching over you."
"I told Windwolf I'd think about this."
"Humans have a wonderful saying: assume is making an ass out of 'u' and me. Windwolf assumes that Pony will guide you in your choice, and Pony assumes that you know all."
"So you're doing it."
"Hell, someone has to."
"If it's Pony's job, shouldn't I just tell him that I don't know shit?"
Stormsong gave her a look that Tinker recognized from years of being a child genius.
"Oh gods," Tinker cried. "Don't look at me that way!"
"The 'what a clever little thing' look. It horrifies me how long I'm going to have to put up with that now that I'm an elf."
Stormsong laughed, and then lapsed into Low Elvish, sounding properly contrite. "Forgiveness, domi."
"Oh, speak English."
"Yes," Stormsong said in English. "You should talk to Pony, since those you hold need to work well with him. Let me give you pointers he might not think of—he is still new at this. Blind leading the blind and all that shit."
"You're not going to take 'later' as an answer?"
"Kid, how splattered with shit do you need to get before you realize it's hitting the fan? We're fuck deep in oni, Wyverns, and Stone Clan. Now is not the time to be worrying about chain of command."
Stormsong had a way of driving the point home with a sledgehammer. Tinker just wished she wasn't the one being hammered. "Fine, point away."
"What all sekasha want is seniority. To be First. Failing that—in the First Hand." Top five, she meant. "Forever at the bottom is a bitch. Pony was wise to seize the chance to be your First once he saw what you were made of. You've proved yourself with keeping both Windwolf and Pony safe from the oni—that's what a good domi does—so all of us are willing to fill your Hand."
"But . . ." Tinker swore she could hear a "but" in there somehow.
"It would be best for all—" Stormsong paused and then added, "—in my opinion—that you don't choose from Windwolf's First Hand."
"Most domana fill their First Hand with sekasha just breaking their doubles. The domana want the glory a Hand gives them, and the sekasha see it as a way to be in First Hand. We call it a vanity Hand. The thing is that most domana can't attract a Second Hand because not only is the incentive of being First gone, the sekasha of the Second Hand have to be willing to serve under the First Hand. Likewise the Third Hand knows that they will be junior to the First Hand and the Second. Adding into this is the personality of the domana: does the positive of being beholden to that domana outweigh the negative of not having seniority? Many domana can only hold vanity Hands."
"Okay." Tinker had assumed that all domana had multiple hands. Apparently not.
"Windwolf's grandfather, Howling, helped tear us away from the Skin Clan and form the monarchy that keeps the clans from waging endless war. When he was assassinated, his sekasha became Longwind's—but not as his First or Second, since those were already filled."
"Ouch." Tinker wondered how this related.
"Yes, it was a step down for them—but they saw it as fitting since they had failed Howling," Stormsong said. "Windwolf wanted his First Hand to advise him on setting up in this new land, setting up new towns and lines of trade, something he didn't think doubles could help him do. So he approached the sekasha of his grandfather's Hands and they accepted. It would make them First Hand again, but more importantly, they believed in him. Wolf Who Rules has always lived up to his name."
"So, the First Hand, they're all thousands of years old?"
"Okay." So maybe she wasn't so good at guessing age—none of the sekasha struck her as older than late twenties in human terms. Tinker finished setting the nonconductive pins that would hold the spell level. "Can you take down your shield? I'm going to set the compressor spell into place."
Tinker didn't want to risk brushing the spell tracing up against an active spell. Stormsong spoke the command that deactivated her shields. A slight pricking that Tinker hadn't really noticed vanished, making her aware by its absence that she had been feeling the active magic.
"Thanks." Tinker took the filigreed sections of the spell out of their protective packing and fit them into place.
Stormsong watched her for a few minutes before continuing her explanation. "It was his First Hand that let Windwolf pull a Second and Third Hand made up of triples and quads."
"So why—" Tinker paused to make sure all the pieces of the spell were stable and level. "Why shouldn't I take any of Windwolf's First? Wouldn't that help me, like it helped him?"
"It would help at a cost to Pony. There's no way he could be First to one of Windwolf's First Hand. Also, the First Hand are the ones that see you most as a child that needs firm guidance until you finish growing up. Lastly, they're all technophobes."
"Ick!" Tinker picked up her cordless soldering iron and started to tack together the pieces of the spell with careful, practiced solders.
"The younger sekasha won't bring you as much honor as those from Windwolf's First Hand but they'll be the ones that 'fit' with you best. When Pittsburgh appeared, Windwolf realized that he needed sekasha willing to learn technology—and that recent doubles would be the most open-minded. That's when he picked up his Fourth Hand."
"You don't think Pony will know that they'll fit best?"
Stormsong sighed. "Pony's mother, Otter Dance, is Windwolf's blade mother."
"Otter Dance is Longwind's favorite lover among his sekasha." Stormsong explained.
Tinker was missing the significance. "Pony is Windwolf's brother?"
"Genetically? no. But emotionally? yes, in a way."
"Oookay." Tinker wondered what Windwolf's mother felt about it. Did she see her husband having a lover as some kind of a betrayal? Or did the fact there was even a special name—blade mother—mean that it was somehow expected! Certainly Stormsong seemed to think this was nothing hugely remarkable.
"It has been assumed since Pony's birth that he'd look to Windwolf," Stormsong continued. "In my opinion—that assumption did what all assumptions do."
"Make an ass out of you and me?"
"Yes. Pony is fucking amazing, but neither Windwolf nor Pony seem to realize it. Windwolf still sees Pony as a child, and he's not!"
Tinker thought about Pony doing exercises up in their oni cell, wearing only his pants—chiseled muscles moving under silken skin dripping with sweat. "My husband needs his eyes checked."
Stormsong laughed. "I'm glad you snatched Pony up. As long as you don't do something to fuck him up, maybe he'll one day realize how special he is. Until then, he's going to overcompensate for what he sees as his own weakness. Pony might point you toward someone from the First Hand and then try to bow out—all in the name of doing right by you."
Tinker focused on the last of the solders, clenching her jaw in annoyance at Stormsong's comments about Pony and Windwolf. It felt wrong to hear anything negative about either one of them, like she was being disloyal. Really, what did she know about Stormsong other than she was one of Windwolf's trusted bodyguards? Besides the fact that she nearly died for Tinker?
Tinker sighed as she forced herself to consider that maybe Stormsong was right about all this—that it was vital she pick out four more guards immediately and that Pony needed a good slap upside the head. She found herself remembering that Pony had waited without comment for her to decide to accept Bladebite.
"Is Bladebite from Windwolf's First Hand?" Tinker tried to sound casual about it.
And if Tinker hadn't dodged the question, she would be stuck with Bladebite trying to control her. She sighed. "How do I tell Bladebite no?" Surely she didn't have to tell him "yes" just because he had offered. That would be a stupid system—but the elves never struck her as completely logical. "Can I tell him no?"
"You can say that you don't think you fit with him. That's copasetic."
Copasetic. Tinker shook her head, remembering the days immediately after she had become an elf—everything made more confused by the fact that Pony didn't speak English or understand the differences between the two cultures.
"When the queen called Windwolf to Aum Renau," Tinker said, "why didn't Windwolf leave you with me?"
"My mother is Pure Radiance and my father is the queen's First. They have not seen me for a hundred years and wanted me there. Windwolf thought it unwise not to bring me."
Tinker stared at the elf in amazement. "The oracle and a Wyvern? What the hell are you doing with Wind Clan?"
"I had—issues—with court. Windwolf offered me a chance to escape all that and I jumped. Considering what my mother named me, she probably wasn't totally surprised."
Yes, Stormsong sounded more like a Wind Clan name than Fire Clan.
It occurred to Tinker then what "fit" was about. She felt comfortable sitting and talking with Stormsong. Annoying as the truth was, Tinker trusted her judgment. And it would be good to have someone who understood what it felt like to be the outsider.
"So," Tinker said to Stormsong. "Are you offering?"
Stormsong looked puzzled a moment, and then surprised. "To be yours?"
"Yeah. I—I think we work."
Stormsong blinked at her a few moments before standing, the scrape of her boots on the cement loud in the silence that fell between them.
"I can understand if you don't want to." Tinker busied herself checking the solders. All that was needed was to cement the spell into place, wait for the cement to cure, and the black willow could be safely stored indefinitely. Or at least, until she figured out what her dreams meant.
"I want to be honest with you." Stormsong paced the perimeter of the room in her long-legged stride. "But it's like opening a vein. It's a painful, messy thing to do."
Tinker lifted her hand to wave that off. "I don't think I can deal with painfully messy at the moment."
"You should know stuff like this before you ask. That was the whole point of the conversation. You have to make informed choices."
Tinker made a noise. "I've been doing fairly well lately blindly winging it through mass chaos."
Stormsong scoffed and then sighed. "I'm probably the most misbegotten mutt puppy ever born to the elves. Most people think my mother made a horrible mistake having me. I don't fit in anywhere."
"At least you stayed an elf, instead of jumping species like I did."
Stormsong laughed. "There have been times I wished I could. Just be human. Lose myself among them. But a hundred years of sekasha brainwashing made that impossible. I can't walk away from it. I tried, but I can't. I like being sekasha too much."
"Not to belittle your difficulties, but I really don't get the problem. You're a sekasha. I need sekasha. We work together well—at least I think we do. Or is it that you hate my guts?"
"I would die for you."
Tinker wished that people would stop saying that to her. "I'll take that as a 'no, I don't hate you' and frankly, I'd rather you didn't die. Now, that's painful and messy, and not just for you."
Stormsong laughed and then bowed low to Tinker. "Tinker domi, I would be honored to be yours. I will not disappoint you."
12: TEARS ON STONE
At first glance, Turtle Creek seemed the same to Tinker. Sunlight shafted through the Discontinuity in rays of blue. Mist rising off the chill gathered into banks of blue haze and then drifted out of the valley, existing momentarily as white clouds, before burning away in the summer heat. True, royal troops showed up as splashes of Fire Clan red—thus the lifting of the ban on Turtle Creek—but otherwise nothing seemed to have changed. It remained one big hole in reality.
Tinker led her Hand down into the valley to where they'd marked the trees. The first sapling they found had nine slashes in its bark—which should have meant it would be nine feet from the edge of the Discontinuity.
"That looks like only five feet to me." Tinker fingered the mark, wondering if someone might have added slashes after they left.
"Barely five." Pony pointed at the next tree along the edge of the blue.
The tree was marked with seven slashes but the blue came almost to its roots.
"This is bad." Tinker murmured.
"Domi." Pony had moved on ahead and pointed now at a tree inside the effect.
She joined him at the edge of the blue; there were four slashes in the bark of the ghostly tree. "Shit, the Discontinuity has grown. How is that possible?" She motioned to the sekasha that they were leaving.
"Now what?" Stormsong asked.
"I'm going to need some equipment, then we're coming back."
Tinker scanned the valley with her camera's infrared attachment over the valley, watching the screen on her workpad instead of looking through the eyepiece. In one window, the video feed showed the thermal picture, and in other windows, programs reduced the images to mathematical models. At the center of the Ghostlands, she spotted a familiar circle.
"Something wrong, domi?" Pony asked.
She realized that she had gasped at her discovery. "Oh—this here—this looks like our gate. See, here is the ironwood ring and here is the ramp over the threshold."
"It is lying on its side?"
"Yes. The current probably toppled it, though I'm not sure what is causing the current. It might be simple—" Her Elvish failed her. Did they have a word for convection? "Heat rises and cold falls. Basic science. It's what makes the winds blow. I think this is the same thing on a microscale—like a pot boiling."
"Why not like a pond freezing?"
"I don't know. Perhaps because there's a pool of magic below this, heating the bottom, but it's losing massive amounts of energy before it hits the surface—thus the reason for the cold."
"Ah." Pony nodded like he understood.
"Do you see this point here? Right where the gate is lying. Can you shoot this arrow to that point?"
"With the line and weight attached?"
Pony considered for a moment. "Stormsong would be better."
Among the sekasha, Pony was considered the better archer. Her surprise must have shown as Pony waved over Stormsong and explained what Tinker wanted.
"When I have to make a shot, I do it with my eyes closed," Stormsong said. "I see where the arrow needs to be."
"Ooookay." Tinker handed her the end of the line.
Stormsong attached the line to an arrow, nocked it in her compound bow, pulled taut the string, and closed her eyes. For a moment she stood there, aiming blind, and then let loose the bowstring. The arrow soared straight and true as if it had nothing weighing it down or trailing behind. The reel whizzed as the line snaked out after the arrow, the numbers on the meter blurring as they counted up the feet. Near the point Tinker wanted, but not exactly, the arrow shot into the ghost ground of the Discontinuity. It appeared on Tinker's screen as a dot of red heat compared to the arctic cold of the land, too far to the right. The reel fell quiet and the line ran taut out into the Discontinuity.
Tinker sighed. "Close enough for horseshoes and discontinuities."
"It's where it has to be," Stormsong defended her shot.
"I'm trying to see how deep the Discontinuity runs. I figure it is deepest at the gate—it's close enough for that."
Tinker clicked on her mouse and the meter fed its number into the computer: 100 yards. Already the arrow chilled to blue, blending into the rest of the chilled landscape.
"Why does it matter how deep it is?" Pony asked as the reel started to click out as the arrow sank.
Tinker shrugged. "Because I don't know what else to do at the moment. I'm just fiddling around, poking at it until something comes to me."
"Will not the current affect this measurement?" Pony asked.
"Oh, damn." She muttered in English, and then dropped back to low Elvish. "Yes, it will." He was right. There was no way to know what was drift and what was the weighted end sinking. "I'll have to measure the drift and correct the measurements."
At least it gave her an excuse to reel in the arrow and try again to thread it through the heart of the gate. She flipped on the winch. The slack reeled in quickly but then the line went taut, and the winch slowed.
"Well, I'll be damned," Tinker said.
"What is it, domi?" Pony asked.
"The arrow hit something."
"The arrow went where it was needed," Stormsong repeated.
There were times Tinker really hated Elfhome—magic screwed with everything. "I didn't think anything would be solid enough to catch on the line."
"The line is solid."
"Yes, it is." She gasped as the implications dawned on her. "Pony, you're a genius. The line is solid."
"I cannot be that smart, domi, because I do not understand why that excites you."
"Well, it is an important observation. An object from this reality stays in this reality even after sinking into the Discontinuity."
"How is this important?"
"I do not know, but it is something I did not know before."
"Ah. I see."
The object appeared on the thermal scan, an oddly shaped mass of slightly lighter blue. By the naked eye, she could make out a boil of disturbance beyond where the line cut into the earth, creating a sharp V-shaped wake.
"It is big, whatever it is," Tinker said.
Pony unsheathed his sword.
"I doubt if it is anything living." Tinker backed up regardless. Gods knew what she was dragging in from between realities. "It is at—at . . ." She had to teach Pony English or learn more Elvish. What was Elvish for absolute zero? "It is frozen."
The thing hit shore. For a moment she thought it was a large turtle, and then the line kept reeling, rolling it. Long-fingered webbed hands and a vaguely human-looking face heaved out of the earth, rimmed with frost.
"Oh gods!" Tinker leapt back and the other sekasha drew their swords. The reel protested the sudden heavy load as the frozen body hit solid earth, the line vibrating. She killed the power before the line could snap. "Don't touch it!"
"I think it is dead." Pony had his sword at its throat just in case.
"The cold itself is dangerous. Don't touch it directly, but get it out."
Tinker kept her distance. The sekasha looped straps carefully around the outstretched limbs and hauled the thing out of the liquid earth. The creature was half Tinker's height and had a turtle shell, but also long scaly limbs and webbed feet and hands. Long straight black hair fringed a bare, depressed spot on a humanlike head, and its face was a weird cross of a chubby monkey's and a turtle's. It wore a harness of leather with various pointy things that could be weapons attached to it.
Pony pricked the creature with his sword, eyed the wound. "It does not bleed. It is indeed frozen."
"Ooookay," Tinker said. "It is probably safe to assume that it will stay dead, even if it thaws out."
"An elf would." Pony sheathed his sword.
"What do you think it is?" Tinker asked.
"It's a kappa." A voice called from above them.
Tinker and her Hand turned, looking upwards. Riki perched on branches of an ironwood, high overhead. He ducked back, behind the trunk, as the sekasha pulled out their pistols.
"Wait, don't fire," Tinker ordered. "Riki! Riki! What the hell is this?"
"I told you." He peered out around the trunk. "It's a kappa. Ugly little brats aren't they? In Japan, it's believed that they get their great strength from water in that brain depression and if you can trick them into bowing and spilling out the water, they have to return to the water realm to regain their strength."
Stormsong signed "Kill him?" in blade talk. Tinker signed back "Wait."
"It's an oni?" Tinker asked. "Or an animal?"
"That's a blurred line with the oni," Riki said. "I think you would call it oni—they're fairly clever in a homicidal way. The greater bloods made them by mixing animals with lesser bloods, just like Tomtom did with Chiyo. Legend has it that they used monkeys and turtles—a pretty sick mix, if you ask me."
"I didn't see any while we were making the gate."
"There aren't any in Pittsburgh. They're clever, but not enough to pass as a human."
"So you're saying it came through the gate?"
"The oni use them for special ops; they're strong swimmers and wrestlers."
Tinker looked back into the Discontinuity, the slow drift of blue mist. What were the oni up to? Were they just testing these strange waters to see where they led—or were they trying to salvage the gate?
Then again, was Riki telling the truth that there were no kappa in Pittsburgh?
"What are you doing here, Riki?"
"I need to talk to you."
"Talk? Talk about what? How can I even trust anything that comes out of that lying mouth of yours?"
"I'm sorry, Tinker, about everything that happened. I really am. I know you're pissed as hell at me, but I need to talk to you about the dragon."
"The one that attacked you. The one I pulled off you. The one that might have killed you and all your people if I hadn't called it."
"So it was a dragon?"
"Not an Elfhome dragon, but yes, a dragon."
"An Onihida dragon?"
"What does it matter where it's from? It's a freaking dragon. Can we just move on?"
"Just answer the fucking question!" she shouted at Riki. "It's rather simple. Was it an Onihida dragon?"
Riki paced the limb like an agitated crow. "For a long, long time dragons were worshipped as gods, both on Earth and Onihida. They lived in 'the heavens' and had great powers that they often used to help humans and tengu alike. All the legends about dragons go on about the heavens and traveling from to Onihida or Earth and back. What that mystical shit might have actually been talking about is travel between universes. So dragons may be native to Onihida—or might be from someplace else. I don't know."
If Riki had told her the truth about his childhood, he was raised on Earth and probably was less in tune with the mystical than she was. Not that she was particularly "in tune."
"The dragon cast an oni shield spell." She pointed out the flaw in Riki's "not from Onihida" logic.
"No, that's not oni magic, it's dragon magic. The oni true bloods figured out how to enslave dragons and stole their magic."
So he said—but how could she know if he was telling the truth? "Dragon magic? Oni magic? What's the difference?"
"Originally oni magic was only bioengineering, just like the elves."
"So the solid hologram stuff? Like your wings?"
"That's dragon magic."
"And the tengu? They're both oni and dragon magic?"
Riki did an angry little hop. "Tinker! I just want to ask you one simple question, not give you a history lesson."
"What do you want, Riki?"
"The dragon—when it attacked you—did it mark you with a symbol or tattoo or something like that?"
"Strange that you ask, but yeah, it put one right here." She half turned and patted her butt cheek. "It says, 'Kiss my ass.'"
"I know how pissed you must be, Tinker. Believe me, if this weren't important, I wouldn't come anywhere near you."
She scoffed at that. "What does this mark do?"
"So it marked you?" Judging by the excitement in his voice, it was very important to him.
Stormsong shoved Tinker suddenly behind her and activated her shields with a shout. At the movement, Riki jerked back out of sight. A second later, a bullet struck the tree trunk where Riki had been standing, ricocheted, and struck Stormsong's shield.
"Shields, domi." Pony triggered his own and pulled his sword.
Tinker felt a kick of magic from the west. She forced herself to find her center and cast the trigger spell. Her heart was pounding as the wind wrapped around her.
Sekasha emerged from the forest shadows; their wyvern armor and tattoos were the black of the Stone Clan. Five in all—a full Hand, the back two acting as Shields, which meant they had someone to guard. They halted some twenty feet off, tense and watchful.
"Lower your weapons," a female shouted in High Elvish.
"Lower yours! This is Wind Clan holding!" Tinker shouted angrily.
"It's a royal holding," The Stone Clan's domi came out from behind one of the ironwoods. "And you're conversing with the enemy."
The domi was short for an elf, several inches shorter than her sekasha, but willowy graceful as any other high-caste female Tinker had ever seen. She wore an emerald green underdress and an overdress with a forest of wildly branching trees over it. Her hair was gathered into elaborate braids, dark and rich as otter fur, twined with emerald ribbons and white flowers. Two small gleaming orbs circled around her, like tiny planets caught in her gravity.
"Yeah, I was talking to him." Tinker almost dropped her shield but then she realized that her sekasha hadn't put away their swords. "It's a good way to find out things you don't know. Like who are you?"
"Hmm, short and vulgar—you must be Wolf Who Rules' domi. What was your name again? Something unpronounceable."
"This is one of my issues from court," Stormsong murmured in English. "Lowest ranking introduces themselves first; it's a matter of honor. You outrank her, so she should go first. She's trying to provoke you since she can't call insult; you are still under the queen's protection."
"Fuck that. Who the hell is she?"
"Her name is Jewel Tear on Stone. She and the rest of the Stone Clan arrived this morning."
"Is she right about this being a royal holding now?"
"You are talking to me, not her." Jewel Tear picked her way gracefully toward Tinker. Despite the sweltering heat and her long gown, there was no sweat on her creamy white skin. "You are Wolf Who Rules' domi? Tinkle? Thinker?"
Screw this. "Can you introduce us, Stormsong?"
"Me doing it would be a breach of etiquette and be considered extremely rude."
"Good. Do it."
Stormsong executed an elegant bow and said. "Jewel Tear on Stone, this is our Beloved Tinker of Wind."
Amazing how they all reacted as if she had slapped Jewel Tear. All the Stone Clan sekasha moved forward as if to attack.
"Hold," Jewel Tear snapped. She glared at Tinker for a moment, but then murmured, "You are such a rude little beast. I don't know if I should be flattered or horrified that Wolf Who Rules chose you after I cut him loose."
Tinker glanced to Stormsong, who nodded slightly, confirming that yes this was an old girlfriend of Windwolf's. Well, if it was a battle of wits that this bitch wanted, she'd come to the right place. "That proves what they say."
"Only an idiot would turn down Wolf Who Rules."
"Your arrogance is only matched by your ignorance."
"I'd rather be unlearned than moronic—since it's so much easier to cure."
"When Prince True Flame learns of your treason, he will cure that arrogance too."
"I might have been talking to the tengu—but you let him get away." Tinker pointed out.
Jewel Tear spoke a spell and made a motion, and magic pulsed underfoot, pushing up through the ground, the low ferns, and then the trees to the very ends of the leaves. Tinker felt the ten sekasha standing around them, even Rainlily standing behind her. She and Jewel Tear echoed differently—their domana shields creating the change, or maybe their innate magical talents. Around them there were birds and animals unseen but now sensed.
She didn't, however, feel Riki—and by her angry look,—neither did Jewel Tear.
"Horse piss!" Jewel Tear hissed quietly.
"I was trying to get as much information out of the tengu as I could." Tinker rubbed Jewel Tear's nose in it. Interestingly, the female didn't take it gracefully.
"The oni subverted you when they held you prisoner."
"No, they did not." Pony answered the charge. "I stand as witness to my domi: by my blood and my blade, she never bowed her will to them."
There was noise of something coming through the woods toward them. Jewel Tear triggered her sonar spell again and the forest was alive with sekasha moving toward them, and at least two other domana. Tinker was going to have to learn that spell.
"True Flame is coming. We'll see what he has to say."
A wave of red washed around them as Wyverns surrounded them, and then, comfortingly, a tight knot of blue as True Flame and Windwolf entered the clearing. Jewel Tear dropped her shields, so Tinker followed suit.
True Flame glanced at the kappa all but forgotten on the ground, and then to Tinker and Jewel Tear. "What is going on here? Where did that kappa come from?"
"I pulled that out of the Ghostlands." Tinker stepped forward and gave it a slight kick to demonstrate it was frozen solid. "The Ghostlands must have instantly sucked the body heat out of it."
"She was talking with a tengu." Jewel Tear indicated the empty treetops.
"Yes, I was." Tinker saw no point in denying it. "We have a history together. He betrayed me to the oni and I beat the snot out of him for it. He found me and started the conversation."
"What did you speak about?" True Flame asked.
"I'm not sure what he wanted—they nearly killed me shooting at him."
Windwolf had moved between Jewel Tear and Tinker just as a sekasha would, his shields still up so he seemed to shimmer with anger. With Tinker's explanation, he took a step toward Jewel Tear. "How dare you?"
Jewel Tear jerked up her chin. "That was an unfortunate and unforeseeable accident. Forgiveness, Tinker ze domi."
Tinker nodded but Windwolf shook his head.
"If you harm my domi," Windwolf growled, "It will not be the Fire Clan that you'll be answering to."
"Wolf Who Rules—" True Flame snapped.
"I will not suffer future 'unfortunate' accidents. There will be no forgiveness."
True Flame studied Windwolf for a moment and then nodded. "That is your right."
Windwolf caught Tinker's hand. "Come." And he pulled her out of the clearing.
"Wait, my stuff."
"No!" She jerked her hand free. "I'm not done here."
"You are for right now."
"No, no, no. I'm sick of this. Come here, go there, do this. My grandfather died five years ago, thank you, and I was happy making decisions for myself."
"These are royal holdings now." Windwolf swept a hand to take in the whole valley. "I cannot make her leave."
"So you're making me?" Tinker cried.
"Beloved. I do not trust her. I cannot stay here and watch over you now and I cannot make her leave."
As always, he seemed to cover all the options—leaving her no good choice but to do what he wanted.
This time she shook her head. "No. Again and again, you don't tell me enough to form my own options. All I know are your options and I'm not playing that anymore."
"Reasonable? What is reasonable about taking the smartest person in this city and making them deaf and blind? I'm supposed to walk away from my work, leaving behind my currently irreplaceable equipment, because some female from the other side of the world is not playing nice in my backyard?"
"I told you that I cannot stay and I cannot make her leave."
"And those are the only options because they're the only ones you have thought of? You know, if I had a level playing field I could come up with options of my own."
"I do not have time to explain it all."
"Of course not. You never have time."
"Beloved . . ."
"Don't 'Beloved' me. Did you know that—until Pony told me, I didn't know the name of your mother? That I didn't know that you—and I—could use Fire Clan spell stones? I don't even know when I'm going to have a period! I'm stuck in this stranger's body and no one tells me diddly. And when did I agree to be called Beloved Tinker? I think I should at least be able to pick out my own name."
Windwolf looked stunned at her outburst and after a moment, said quietly, "Your name is . . . short."
"Tinker isn't my real name. My real name is Alexander Graham Bell."
"It is? I did not know that."
"Score one for me."
"Beloved—Tinker—Alexan . . . der?" He floundered for a moment. "Isn't that considered a male name?"
"I can hold my own with Jewel Tear. I'm not done here, and I'm not leaving my stuff."
"No, you cannot hold your own." Windwolf caught her by her shoulders. "Do not ever think that you can. Only you can sense her magic—so it is possible for her to attack you without your sekasha knowing it. She could make a tree fall, the ground give way, dozens of little ways that you do not know."
"You really think she would try to kill me?"
"Any one of us," Stormsong added in English, "can make a bullet ricochet and hit a target. The tengu was a convenient excuse."
Tinker turned to her and saw in her eyes that none of her sekasha took the event as an accident. They hadn't relaxed until Windwolf and True Flame appeared.
"But why?" she asked.
"Because the Stone Clan stands to gain much if you are dead and I'm distracted. Because she is a self-centered, ambitious bitch."
That was unnerving. Tinker kicked at the dirt, not wanting to leave, hating that once again she was bowing to his limited options. "Can we can get True Flame to order her out of the area?"
"No, we must let her try and fix this valley."
Tinker laughed. "With what?"
She doubted that greatly, but she was up against the wall of her own ignorance. "I'm the one that made this mess. I'll be the one that fixes it."
"That is quite possible. Stone Clan, however, has assured True Flame that they can quickly fix the Ghostlands, while you said you needed to study it further. Everyone knows that you were being realistic—but True Flame had to believe the Stone Clan or it would be an insult to them."
"God forbid he insults them." Tinker growled and looked back toward the Discontinuity's edge and her abandoned equipment.
"Domi, I will bring your things," Stormsong offered. "I am not totally ignorant of these computer things."
Since Stormsong could manage the Rolls Royce and the walkie-talkie, she should be able to disconnect the equipment and carry it back to the enclave unharmed. Tinker sighed and nodded. "Okay. Thank you."
Windwolf signaled that Cloudwalker would accompany Stormsong, and the two sekasha moved off.
"There is so much I need to know," Tinker said to him. "And if we're really going to be husband and wife—you need to take the time for me. How do you expect me to trust you when you keep throwing me in the pool to sink or swim?"
He sighed deeply and scrubbed his hands over his face. "I want to be there for you—protect you—but I can't. It's killing me that you're in the water and floundering—but the only other option I have is to lock you away someplace safe, and that would only kill you faster. The only thing that has kept me sane so far is knowing that you're actually very good at finding your own way out of the water."
After seeing his domi safely back to Poppymeadow's, Wolf went in search of Earth Son to lodge his complaint. He found Earth Son at the palace clearing, pacing it out as if he planned to claim the piece of land for himself. Apparently the Stone Clan domana had expected the aumani as soon as they arrived in Pittsburgh; Earth Son wore a full tunic of rich green silk and a gold burnt velvet duster with a stone horse pattern. Like Jewel, he had a spell orb keeping him cool in the muggy Pittsburgh summer.
Wolf closed the distance between them. "Earth Son, I will have a word with you."
Earth Son had inherited his father's height, so he was slightly taller than Wolf. He tried to use it to look down on Wolf, but then ruined the effect by doing a sketchy bow. "Wolf Who Rules."
Wolf was too angry to acknowledge the veiled insult of Earth Son's greeting. "Has the Stone Clan all run mad? We do not know the number of the oni forces, and the way between our worlds is not fully shut, and you're already asking for a clan war."
"Us?" Earth Son feigned confusion.
"I may be young, but I spent my doubles at court. I recognize power maneuvering when I see it."
"You are seeing things that are not there—like your so-called oni." Earth Son's First, Thorne Scratch, tried to silence her domou with a hand on his shoulder. Earth Son flicked the female sekasha's hand away. "I have been out for hours doing scrys." He waved toward the forest beyond the clearing. "And found nothing remotely resembling an oni. 'I can see the shadows of the oni on the wall,' is that not what you said at court? Apparently that's all that you've seen—shadows! You're jumping at phantoms if you ask me."
Wolf didn't even bother with magic. He stepped forward and caught Earth Son by the throat. "Listen, you little turd, my domi is under the queen's protection, which means you are not to attack her. But if you can't get that through that rock skull of yours, then understand this—if she is hurt in any way, I will hunt you down and tear out your throat."
"You would not dare," Earth Son managed to whisper.
"I started with nothing here. I can do it again. If my domi is killed, I will let the crown strip me bare to have my revenge. Do not think our royal cousin will protect you either—after you shit all over the queen's commands, True Flame will not stop me."
"I cannot be held accountable for what that the others—"
"You are clan head for this area and I will hold you responsible."
"Forest Moss is mad!"
"If you didn't want the disadvantages that the mad one brings with him, you shouldn't have chosen him."
"I didn't choose him."
Earth Son's Hand looked relieved as the clearing filled with Wyverns.
"Wolf." True Flame followed on the wash of red. "Let him go."
Wolf released Earth Son, turning over this new piece of information. He knew that Earth Son did not have considerable standing in the Stone Clan, but he thought that Earth Son would have at least been party to picking out the clan domana that would be under him. Now that Wolf had talked with Forest Moss and Jewel Tear and learned their situations, their inclusion seemed less a personal attack on the Wind Clan, and more a statement of the Stone Clan's assessment of Pittsburgh. They had sent two of their most disposable domana. Or was the count three?
In the clans, birth did not guarantee rank. It was acknowledged, though, that children of the clan leaders learned much from observing their parents. Genetically, too, the leaders were the best that the clans had to offer. True, barring accident or assassination, it was unlikely clan heads would ever change—but as his mother's only child, Earth Son was a likely future leader. Then again, he had arrived with only one Hand. Was he escort for the other two, or fellow exile? If the latter, what had Earth Son done to be sent to Pittsburgh?
"I did nearly a hundred scrys," Earth Son reported to True Flame while he rubbed his throat. "There's no oni here."
"The oni are savage but not stupid," Wolf snapped. "Acting quickly is not to their advantage. They are hiding themselves well and waiting for the best time to strike."
Earth Son scoffed at this. "If that was the case, they should have struck while you were here alone, with even your voice turned against you."
"They tried. They failed." Wolf did not mention how near the assassination had come to succeeding. The brutal attack killed one of his sekasha, damaged one of his hands, and stranded him deep in Pittsburgh's territory just as it returned to Earth. If not for Tinker, the plot would have succeeded. "If the Ghostlands can be used to their advantage, they will wait for reinforcements."
"Wolf is right," True Flame said. "That they managed to stay hidden for nearly thirty years shows that they have patience. No matter what happens, we need you to ferret them out."
13: IGNORE THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN
Tinker sat high up on a towering cross, clinging to the crossbrace. Black was sitting at the very end of the crossbrace, sobbing quietly. The delicate-boned woman wore a puffy black mourning gown and a crown. Lying beside her was a long wand with a star attached to it. Her host of crows sailed overhead, cawing, "Lost, Lost!"
With a flurry of wings, Riki perched on the tip of the brace between Tinker and Black. He was wearing an odd red outfit. "There's no shame in being afraid of heights. Most people are."
"Oh, go away, monkey boy," she snapped.
"I'm not a flying monkey," the tengu said. "I gave that up. You melted the witch, so I got out of my no-compete contract. I'm working strictly as a freelance crow. The health benefits suck, but I make my own hours."
Tinker pointed to the sobbing Black. "Why is she crying?"
"She gave her heart to the Tin Man but she lost him," Riki told her. "Not even the wizard can fix that."
"Hey!" On the ground, Esme gazed up at them, wearing blue checked overalls and red ruby boots. "You can't get down. Your not smart enough. You're head is full of straw."
"I'll figure a way down," Tinker shouted back.
"Falling will work," Riki said.
And Tinker was falling.
The dream seemed to hiccup and she was safe on the ground then. Esme had a wicker basket and a little black dog. Pony was there, his hair loose and curly as a mane, whiskers, cat ears and tail to finish the cat look. Oilcan too, looking like he was made out of metal.
"You have Black's heart?" Tinker asked Oilcan.
"I have no heart." He thumped on his chest and it echoed.
"That was a different tin man." Esme butted between the two of them. "We need to find the wizard! Only he can solve all our problems."
"I can take you to the wizard." Oilcan squeaked as he moved his arm to point down a yellow brick road that led into a dark forest of black willows. "But we don't need to hurry, it's only six o'clock."
"We've murdered time." Esme took out a pocket watch. It seemed to be coated with butter. "It's always six o'clock—we have to run to stay in the same place."
"We will have to go through the trees." Pony's cat tail danced nervously behind him.
"I don't know if that's smart," Tinker said.
"Of course you don't, you have straw for brains." Esme picked straw out of Tinker's head to prove her point. "Look! See!" She held out the straw as evidence. "We have to get to the wizard. He's the only one who can give you brains so you can solve this problem."
"But the road ended with the tree," Tinker pointed out as they crept forward, clinging to one another.
"It's not the tree," Esme said. "It's the fruit."
The trees turned, their gnarled faces looking at them with wooden eyes. They were black willow trees but there were apples—red and tempting—in their branches.
"You need the fruit." Esme pushed Tinker hard toward the trees.
The trees plucked the apples from their branches and flung them like hard rain at Tinker.
* * *
Tinker flailed her way out of her sheets to sit up in bed. It was very early morning by the pale light in the window—the birds hadn't yet started to stir. Windwolf was awake though, and dressing.
"I didn't mean to wake you." He came to kiss her. His shirt was still unbuttoned, and she burrowed into his warmth.
"I had another dream about Black, Esme, and the black willow."
"I figured out who White was—she's Lain's sister."
"Ah, the one in white—you're dreaming that she's dreaming." He wrapped his arms around her, kissing her hair.
"Hm? Oh, yes, the Escher thing." Gods, it felt so right to be held by him.
"Have you talked to Stormsong?"
"Yeah. She—we fit."
He tipped her head back to gaze intently into her face. "You've accepted her? To be your beholden?"
She gave a tiny nod. It sounded like some kind of wedding vow. Was this what elf society was all about—getting married again and again, only without sex? "Yes. To be mine."
Windwolf gave her his smile that warmed her to her toes. "I release her to you. But—"
"But that is not what I meant. You should talk to Stormsong about your dreams. She has some training in yatanyai. She might be able to help you determine what they mean."
"It was thought she would be an intanyei seyosa but in the end, she had too much of her father's temperament." Windwolf kissed Tinker again and slipped out of her hold. "I need to go. True Flame expects me. Why don't you go back to sleep?"
She eyed the bed. She was still tired, but to sleep would most likely mean another dream.
"I'll send Pony to you." Windwolf buttoned up his shirt.
"I'd rather have you." She settled back into the warm softness.
Windwolf smiled. "I am glad of that, but alas, you cannot have me, so you must make do with Pony."
Did he really know what that sounded like in English? She curled into ball and resolved to be asleep before Pony joined her. And she was.
Another day, another dress. She really had to do something about clothing. She picked out the Wind Clan blue dress and had the staff add pockets to it while she ate. Breakfast proved that Windwolf's household was still intent on mothering the life out of her. They stacked the garden table with plates of pastries, omelets, and fresh fruit. Tinker eyed the collection of dishes with slight dismay.
"If they keep this up, they're going to make me fat," Tinker complained.
"Eat." Stormsong pointed at a bench, indicating that she was to sit. "You and Pony have both lost weight since Aum Renau."
Pony nodded, acknowledging that this was the truth. "You should eat."
"Pft." Tinker began loading a plate. "Fine, but you both have to eat too."
A sign of their "fit," they ate at first in companionable silence, then drifted into a conversation about which of the sekasha would work well with them. Of Windwolf's four Hands, they came up with a list of seven possible candidates to fill the three open positions of Tinker's First Hand.
"We can spend a few days pairing with others to see who works best with you." Pony meant Tinker. "Windwolf chose all of his sekasha so we work well together, and we've had years to learn each other's ways."
"What are your plans for today?" Stormsong asked. "Are we finished with that tree?"
"I don't know," Tinker whined. "I had another dream about it. Windwolf said I should talk to you about my dreams."
"You dream?" Stormsong said.
"I don't want to believe that I do," Tinker said, "but things keep showing up out of my dreams."
"Dreams are important," Stormsong said. "They let you see the future."
"Oh gods help me if this is my future," Tinker muttered.
"Tell me this dream," Stormsong said.
"Well, I had a couple, and they're all centering around two people, and the tree." Tinker explained the first dream and then the discovery of Esme's identity, and then last night's dream, ending with, "And I don't have a clue where all that weirdness came from."
Stormsong cocked her blue head with a faint disbelieving look on her face. "It sounds like The Wizard of Oz."
"What's that?" Tinker asked.
"It's a movie," Stormsong said.
Tinker had never heard of such a movie. "What's it about?"
"It's about—It's about—It's odd." Stormsong said. "Maybe you should just see it."
Since Tooloo rented videos, Tinker gave her a call.
"I'm looking for The Wizard of Oz."
"Well, follow the yellow brick road," Tooloo said and hung up.
Somehow, Tinker had totally forgotten how maddening it was to deal with Tooloo. She hit redial, and explained, "I'm looking for the movie called The Wizard of Oz."
"You should have said so in the first place."
"Can you set it aside? I'll be by to pick it up." And while she was there, she'd find out why Tooloo had lied to Nathan.
"No, you won't," Tooloo said.
Amazing that someone can give you an instant headache over the phone. "Yes, I will."
"You can come but the movie won't be here."
"Oh, did someone else rent it?"
"Tooloo!" Tinker whined. "This is so simple—why can't I rent the movie if no one has it?"
"I never had it."
"You didn't?" Tinker asked.
"It was fifty years old when the first Shutdown hit, and I couldn't stand it after having to watch it every year for thirty years running."
Should she even ask why Tooloo had to watch it every year? No, that would only make her head hurt more. "So that's a 'no'?"
"Yes," and Tooloo hung up.
Tinker sat drumming her fingers as she considered her phone. Should she call Tooloo back and try to find out why Tooloo was telling people she wasn't married to Windwolf? Go and visit the crazy half-elf in person? She suspected that even if she could understand the logic behind Tooloo's action, she wouldn't be able to change it so the half-elf would stop.
She decided to focus on her dream. Where had she seen the movie? Her grandfather thought movies were a waste of time, so that left Lain.
"I don't have that movie," Lain stated when Tinker called and asked.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Esme insisted that we watch it every year after Thanksgiving. God knows why they picked Thanksgiving. It always gave me nightmares. I would be quite happy never to see that stupid movie again."
"Esme liked it?"
"She always identified too much with Dorothy, though she never understood why Dorothy wanted to go back home. Esme would go on and on about how if she were Dorothy, she would stay in Oz, which would make my mother cry. Every Thanksgiving we would have this huge family fight about watching it; Esme would win, Mother would cry, and I'd have nightmares."
They said their good-byes like polite people and Tinker hung up. Where had she seen this movie?
She called Oilcan. She never watched a movie alone, so he most likely had seen it with her. "Hey, I'm trying to remember something. Did you see The Wizard of Oz with me?"
"It's a movie called The Wizard of Oz. It's about Dorothy who goes to Oz." That much of the story Tinker had gathered from Lain, although she wasn't clear where Oz was. Africa?
"It's not ringing any bells."
She sighed. "If I track this down, do you want to watch with us?"
"A movie night? Cool. Sure. Meet you at your loft?"
She hadn't considered where to watch the movie once she found it. She suddenly realized it had been two months since she'd been home to her loft. Weirder yet, she didn't want to go—as in "don't want to go to the dentist because it would hurt" way. Why the hell did she feel that way? Her system made Oilcan's look like a toy, which was why they always used her place. But she was cringing at the thought of doing movie night at her loft.
"Tink?" Oilcan asked.
This was stupid—it was her home. "Yeah, my place."
"See you later then."
She slumped forward onto the table, resting her cheek on its smooth surface. Three phone calls, she hadn't yet stirred out of the garden, and already she was emotionally raw and tired. Damn, she wished she could get a good night's sleep. Her exhaustion felt like it was teaming up with all her problems, conspiring to keep her off balance.
"Domi," Stormsong said quietly. "When I saw the movie, I rented it from Eide's."
At least something was working out in her life.
Eide's Entertainment was an institution in Pittsburgh, down on Penn Avenue in the Strip District. Established in the 1970s as a comicbook store, it had been one of the many landmarks that somehow not only survived but also flourished when transplanted to Elfhome. It was a mecca of human culture, which not only humans but also elves went on pilgrimage to. Tinker and Oilcan would always hit the shop once immediately after Startup to see what was new, and then several times a month to see what used music and videos were brought in by other customers. Besides music, videos, and comic books, the store was a treasure trove of collectible items: non-sport cards, magazines, Big Little Books, pulps, and out of print books.
Ralph raised his hand to them as they entered. "Hey, Lina, long time no see. I've got that Nirvana CD you wanted in the back."
It wasn't until Stormsong touched hands with Ralph in a rocker's version of a handshake that Tinker realized he had been talking to Stormsong. Lina? Ah yes, Linapavuata, which was Elvish for "singing." Ralph looked past the elf, saw Tinker.
"Tinker-tiki!" Ralph used Tinker's racing nickname, which meant "Baby Tinker," "Look at you!" He ran a finger over Tinker's ear point, making her burn with embarrassment. "Like the ear job. Love the dress. You're looking fine."
Pony slapped Ralph's hand away and reached for his blade, but Stormsong kept him from drawing his ejae.
"Their ways are not ours," Stormsong murmured in High Elvish to Pony, and then dropped to Low Elvish to continue. "Ralph, this is Galloping Storm Horse on Wind, he looks to Tinker ze domi—and she is very off-limits now."
"Forgiveness." Ralph bowed and used passable Low Elvish. "Does that make you Tinker of the Storms?"
"Beloved Tinker of Wind," Pony corrected Ralph with a growl.
Ralph glanced to Stormsong and read something on her face that made him decide to flee. "Let me go get that CD."
Tinker turned to Pony, who was still glaring after Ralph. "What was that about?"
"He should show you respect," Pony said.
Stormsong clarified in English. "'Baby Tinker' is disrespectful, nor should he have touched you."
"I've known him for years!" Tinker stuck with Low Elvish. She didn't want to cut Pony out of the conversation. "Oilcan and I go to his parties. Tinker-tiki is what all the elves call me."
"Used to call you," Pony said. "No elf would be so impolite as to use it now."
"Only because they fear you would call insult," Stormsong implied, with a glance, that Pony would use his blade in dealing with anyone who insulted Tinker.
"Like—kill them?" Tinker asked.
"We have the right to mete out punishment as we see fit," Pony explained. "By the blood and the sword."
Oh boy. The little things people don't tell her. "You can't just whack the head off anyone that pisses you off!"
"If the insult is severe, yes, we can," Pony said. "Sekasha are divine warriors, who answer only to the gods."
"We have the right," Stormsong said. "Our training guides us not to take the options allowed to us."
"Look, if I'm insulted, I'll punch the guy myself. As far as I'm concerned, you guys are just here for oni and monsters with sharp teeth."
"Yes, domi." Stormsong gave an elaborate bow.
Pony looked unhappy but echoed, "Yes, domi."
Which didn't make Tinker happy, because she felt like she was somehow the bad guy for not letting them lop off heads right and left. Worse, she knew it was all really Windwolf's fault because her life gotten weird the exact second that he entered it. Suddenly she was very annoyed with him, but didn't want to be, which made her grumpier. She tried to ignore the whole confusing swarm of emotions and thumped over to the video rental section. The sekasha and stinging feelings, unfortunately, followed close behind.
She'd never actually rented a video from Eide's before and their categories confused her. There seemed to be two of every category. "Why two?"
"These are bootleg copies with subtitles in Low Elvish." Stormsong pointed out a sign in Elvish that Tinker had missed because a male elfin customer stood in front of it, flipping through the anime.
The elf noticed Stormsong with widening eyes, bowed low, and moved off with a low murmured, "Forgiveness."
"The other elves—they're afraid of you?" Tinker noticed that all the elves in the store covertly watched the sekasha and had cleared out of their path.
"If they do not know us, yes," Stormsong spoke quietly so her words wouldn't carry. "You are one that sleeps in the nest of dragons. You do not know how rare we are—or how dangerous."
"What makes you so special?"
"The Skin Clan did; they created the perfect warrior."
Tinker was afraid to ask how this gave them the right to preform indiscriminate head-lopping, so she focused on why they were here—to rent The Wizard of Oz. Knowing that Pony would be watching the movie with her, Tinker scanned only the translated videos. Unlike the originals in their glossy colorful boxes, the translated videos had plain white covers with Low Elvish printed onto the spines. She pulled out one at random and studied it. The movie was The Wedding Singer which had been translated to The Party Singer. Was it a bad translation or was there actually no Elvish word for wedding? How could the elves exist without the most basic of life ceremonies?
Tinker put the movie back, and scanned the shelves.
Stormsong had been searching too, and now pulled out a box and handed it to Tinker. "This is it."
The translator hadn't even tried to find Elvish to match the words Wizard and Oz. Instead, the title was phonetically spelled out.
Tinker turned and found Tommy Chang leaning against the end of the DVD rack, watching her with his dangerous cool. He was wearing a black tank top that showed off the definition in his muscled arms, a corded leather bracelet, and his signature bandana. Tommy organized raves, the cockfights in Chinatown, and the hoverbike races—the last being how she knew him best.
"Hi, Tommy." Somehow, the normal greeting sounded dorky. Something about his zenlike menace made her feel like a complete techno geek. If she didn't watch it, she ended up overcompensating around him.
He lifted his chin in acknowledgement. "I wasn't sure if they'd let you out." He glanced toward Pony. "They keep you on a short leash. In a dress, even."
"Piss off." That was a record.
"Aren't we touchy now we're an elf?"
"Excuse me, but I've had one fucked-over month."
"So I heard." And then, surprisingly, he added. "Glad you're still breathing."
"You still going to ride for Team Tinker?"
She felt a flash of guilt as she realized that she hadn't thought about racing in months. Last she had heard Oilcan had taken over the riding. "How is my team doing?"
"It's been Team Big Sky's season since," he lifted a finger to indicate her appearance, "the whole elf thing."
That made sense. Oilcan was heavier than she was, had a different center of gravity, and was less aggressive on the turns. Team Banzai would have lost their edge when the oni stole Czerneda's custom-made Delta. That left John Montana, captain of Team Big Sky, with the only other Delta in the racing circuit, and his half brother, Blue Sky, a good match to her build and skills.
"So—you going back to riding?" Tommy asked.
"I don't know. A lot of shit has hit the fan that I need to deal with before I can think about that."
A flash of Wyvern red outside made Tommy look toward the store windows. "Yup, a lot of shit."
Her loft smelled of garbage. Months ago—a lifetime ago—she, Oilcan, and Pony had eaten, washed dishes, left trash in the can to be taken out, left, and never come back. Stormsong was too polite to say anything, carefully sticking to Low Elvish. Even after they'd opened the windows and let in the cool evening air, the place depressed Tinker with its ugliness. She had lived alone at human speed, always too busy cramming in what was important to her to deal with beautifying where she lived. Most of her furniture was battered, mismatched, used stuff that she had picked up cheap. The couch had been clawed by someone else's cats, the leather recliner was cracking with age, and the coffee table was scrap metal she'd welded together and topped with a piece of glass. The walls had been painted dark green by the loft's last occupant—not that you could see a whole lot of the color as her cinderblock and lumber bookshelves covered most of the walls and overflowed with her books. She had nothing beautiful—everything was just serviceable and in need of a good cleaning.
She knew it could be made pretty. She had time now, if she wanted to take it. The place could be cleaned, painted, and furnished. She could even hire carpenters to make her bookcases and kitchen cabinets. There was no room, though, for all the people in her life now. The place was for one busy person who was barely there or a married couple with no interests outside of each other. Windwolf would never fit—his life was too big—and she didn't want to live without him. Without Pony. And of late, not without Stormsong either.
She didn't fit into her old life anymore. This wasn't her home anymore, and it saddened her for reasons she couldn't understand. Perching on the couch's overstuffed arm, she tried to cheer herself up with an inventory of what had replaced her old life. A stud muffin of a husband with wads of cash who was crazy in love with her. A luxurious room at the best enclave. Fantastic food for every meal. A best friend who was even now sitting beside her on the couch, eyeing her with concern.
"What is wrong?" Pony asked quietly.
"I think I'm homesick," she whispered and leaned her forehead against his shoulder. "Look at this place. It's a dump. And I miss it. Isn't that the stupidest thing you've ever heard?"
He pulled her into his lap and held her in his arms. "It is not stupid. It only means you lived with joy here, and it is sorrowful to put joyful things aside."
"Bleah." She sniffed away tears that wanted to fall. "I was lonely, I just never let myself know how much. I made the computers all talk, just so I felt like someone else was here."
"You can grieve for something lost, even if it was not perfect."
The front door opened and Oilcan walked in. "Hey," he announced, not noticing that he had started Stormsong to attention. He balanced boxes and a carton of bottles. "I didn't think you would have anything to eat here, so I brought food." He settled the various boxes onto the coffee table. "Hey, what's with the sad face?"
"I'm just tired." She didn't want him to know how lonely she had been, or think that she was unhappy with her life now. "I've been having all these bad dreams. It's put me on edge. It's like I've been rubbed down to all nerves."
"Ah, yeah, that can happen." Oilcan had suffered from horrible nightmares when he first had come to Pittsburgh. For that first year, she'd climbed into his bed late at night, armed with boxes of tissues, to get him to stop crying. It was one of the reasons she led and he followed despite the fact he was four years older.
"Scrunches?" He asked her if she needed to be held, just as she had once asked him.
"Pony has it covered." She leaned against Pony. "What's in the boxes?"
"Chicken satay with peanut sauce." He lifted up the first lid to show off the skewers of marinated chicken. "Curry puffs, fried shumai, Thai roll, Pad Thai noodles, and Drunken Chicken."
He went into the kitchen to collect dishes and silverware.
"We'll get fat eating all this." She helped herself to one of the Thai rolls, dipping it in the sweet chili sauce. He must have come straight from the Thai place because the thin fried wrapper was still piping hot.
"Feed the body, feed the soul, you sleep better." Oilcan handed her one of the plates and found room for the others on the crowded table.
"Feed on spirits," Stormsong added as she examined the bottles of alcohol. "Hard cider, vodka coolers, and beer?"
"Beer is for me. Figured I'd bring a mix for you guys."
"These are good." Stormsong handed a cooler to Tinker. "The cider carries less of a punch, so Pony and I should stick to those."
"Ah, leave the hard drinking to me." Tinker twisted off the top. Half a cooler, a curry puff, and a plate of pad Thai noodle later, she realized that the rubbed-raw feeling had vanished, and the loft felt like home again.
Tooloo had mentioned that the movie was old, but Tinker was still surprised when it started in only sepia tones. Dorothy was a whiny, stupid, spoiled brat who was clueless on how to manage a rat-sized dog. When Tinker had been Dorothy's age, she had been an orphan and running her own business. Esme identified with this girl? That didn't bode well.
The Earth the movie showed was flat, dusty, and featureless. Tinker was with Esme—why would anyone pine for that?
"Is that what Earth is like?" Pony asked.
"I don't know—I've never been to Earth." Tinker groaned at yet another stupid thing that the girl did. "I'm not sure I can take a full ninety minutes of this."
"It—changes," Stormsong said.
And change it did as a tornado sucked the house up into the air and plopped it down in glorious color. Dorothy's dress turned out to be blue checked and she acquired glittering red high heels that they called "slippers," the source of Esme's overalls and red boots in Tinker's dream.
It took Tinker several minutes to realize how Glinda the Good Witch worked into her dream. "That's Black. She had the wand and the crown. And she was crying."
"I think I would cry if I was stuck in a dress like that," Stormsong said.
Tinker had to agree with that assessment. Tiny little people in weird clothes surrounded Dorothy and talked in rhyming singsong voices.
"Oh, this is so weird," Tinker whispered.
"Does this make more sense in English?" Pony asked.
"No, not really," she told him. "Do they ever stop singing?"
"Not much," Stormsong said as the munchkins escorted Dorothy to the edge of town and waved cheerfully good-bye.
"Oh, of course they're happy to see her go; she's a cold-blooded killer," Tinker groused as Dorothy discovered a talking scarecrow. "Oh gods, they're singing again."
Dorothy and Scarecrow found the apple trees that threw fruit, and then the Tin Man, whose first word was "oilcan." Tinker huddled against Pony, growing disquieted.
"What is it, domi?" Pony asked.
"How did I know? I didn't see this movie before, but so many things are just like my dream."
"Maybe we did see it and forgot," Oilcan said.
"Something this weird?" Tinker asked. "And we both forgot?"
Pony's lion showed up next. Tinker scowled at the screen. It annoyed her that she didn't understand how she had dreamed this movie—and that her dream self had cast Pony in such a cowardly character. "All these people are dysfunctional, delusional idiots."
Finally the foursome plus dog found the wizard, who turned out to be a fraud.
"What was this dream trying to tell me?" Tinker asked.
"I am not sure," Stormsong said. "Normally an untrained dreamer borrows symbols uncontrollably—and this movie is rife with them. Everything from the Abandoned Child archetype to Crossing the Return Threshold."
"Huh?" The only threshold crossing Tinker knew about related to chaos theory.
"Dream mumbo jumbo." Stormsong waved a hand toward the television screen.
The wizard/fraud had produced a hot air balloon, and was saying good-bye. ". . . am about to embark upon a hazardous and technically unexplainable journey to the outer stratosphere."
"Dorothy is taking a heroic journey," Stormsong continued. "She crosses two thresholds, one out of the protected realm of her childhood, and the other completes her journey, by returning to Kansas. If you were familiar with this movie, I would say you were seeking to move past your old identity and claim one that reflects growth. The tornado could be a symbol of the awakening of sexuality, especially suppressed desire."
Tinker resisted the sudden urge to shift out of Pony's arms. "I didn't dream about the tornado."
"Yeah, well, the odd thing is that you're not familiar with the movie. So the question is: Where is the symbolism coming from?"
"Don't look at me!" Tinker closed her eyes and rested her head on Pony's shoulder. "So, what should I do next?"
"Tell me your last dream again."
"I'm up high with Riki and he's a flying monkey. H