Sunshine, p.20
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       Sunshine, p.20

           Robin McKinley
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Chapter 20


  Assailable. An interesting choice of adjective. I looked up at him, and he looked down at me. I couldn't see into the shadows on his face. They remained shadows. They didn't wiggle or sparkle and they didn't have red edges. They didn't go down a long way. They were just shadows. Cute. The only person who still looked normal out of my eyes wasn't a person and wasn't normal.

  The look between us lengthened. He might not be able to lure me to the same doom he almost had the second night at the lake, but it seemed to me it was still doom I saw in his eyes. I looked away. "Improvements," I said. "You mean some of this - this - " The phrases that occurred to me were not tactful: this tragic reproduction of William Beckford's front parlor, or perhaps Ludwig II's. "You mean some of this, er, stuff is, er, yours?"

  "Nothing you may see, no. I do not like tying up my strength in objects. It was an old argument with my master. Physical shape has a certain durability that the less tangible lacks, but I feel it is a brittle durability. He believed otherwise. "

  And he's the one who got skegged, I thought. "Do you know what Bo's philosophy of, er, defense is?"

  Pause. Finally he said: "He puts most of his energies into his gang. This will not help us locate him. "

  I sighed. "This is another of those vampire-senses-are-different things, isn't it?" I supposed I had to tell him what I'd found through the globenet - how I'd first found the bad nowheresville, the beyond-dark human-squishing space, and what else seemed to be in there. If "in" was the right preposition. Out? On? Up? With? After? Over? English has too many prepositions. Did I have to mention SOF?

  I didn't have to tell him anything yet. He didn't seem to be in a big hurry to get me home. How close, in ordinary human-measured geography, was this earth-place to Yolande's house? Ally or no ally, I didn't like the idea of our being neighbors.

  "Bo isn't his real name, is it?" I said. "It sounds like something you'd call a sheepdog. "

  "It is short for Beauregard. "

  I laughed. I hadn't known I had a laugh available. A vampire named Beauregard. It was too perfect. And he probably hadn't got it accidentally from his stepdad who ran a coffeehouse.

  "How much time do we have?" I said. "Bo, I mean, not today's dawn. "

  I was beginning to learn when he was thinking and when he was merely thinking about what to say to me, a bumptious human. This time he was thinking.

  "I have been out of context since we last met," he said. Yes, he said context. "I do not know. I will find out. "

  "Same time, same place," I murmured. "Not. "

  "I do not understand. "

  "We have to meet again, right?" I said. "And I have things to tell you too. I may have a - a kind of line on Bo myself. "

  He nodded. I didn't know whether to be flattered or outraged. Maybe he thought he'd chosen his confederate well. Equal partners with a vampire: an exhilarating concept. Supposing you lived long enough to enjoy the buzz. But I guess "Hey, well done, congratulations, wow" weren't in common vampire usage. Maybe I could teach him that too, with "probably" and "not before next week. "

  "I will come to you, if I may," he said.

  "You would rather I didn't come here again. " I hadn't meant to say that either, but it popped out.

  A clear trace of surprise showed on his face for about a third of a second. I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't been looking straight at him, but it was there. "You may come here if you wish. I. . . " He stopped. I could guess what he was thinking. It was the same thing I was thinking. Wasn't thinking. "Come. I will give you a token. "

  He slid easily through the gap in the impedimenta (sorry, this household brought out the worst in my vocabulary; it was like every bad novel and hyperbolic myth I'd ever read crowding round to haunt me in three dimensions) and made off into the dark. I had a sidelong peek at the overturned goblet as I passed it. My dark vision steadied if I kept it on Con's back, so I did, mostly, resisting the compelling desire to try to figure out what some of the more tortured blacknesses indicated by looking at them directly: hydras with interminable heads; Laocoon with several dozen sons and twice as many serpents; an infestations of trifflds; the entire chariot race from Ben Hur: all frozen in plaster or wood or stone. I hoped. Especially the trifflds.

  Con stopped at a cupboard. It had curlicues leaping out of its lid like a forest of satyrs' horns, and something - things - like satyrs themselves oiling down the edges. It was satyrs. Their hands were its handles. Ugh. Con, his own hand on one of the doors, glanced at me. "Why did the Cup distress you?"

  I shrugged. How was I going to explain?

  "My question is not an idle one," he said. "I do not wish to distress you. "

  Not till after we'd defeated Mr. Bo Jangles anyway. Oh, Sunshine, give a vampire a break. He probably thinks he's trying. "I'm not sure I can explain," I said. "I'm not sure I can explain to me. And vampires aren't much into family ties, are they?"

  "No," he said.

  I already knew vampires aren't great on irony.

  "I. . . have got into this because of my inheritance on my father's side. I'm certainly alive to tell about it - so far - on account of that inheritance, right? But - " I looked into his face as I said this, and decided that the standard impassivity was at the soft, understanding end of the range, like marble is a little softer than adamant. "I'm a little twitchy about this bond thing with you, and the idea of - of - a kind of background to it - that your master had dealings with my dad's family - I don't like it. " I didn't want to know that the monster that lived under your bed when you were a kid not only really is there but used to have a few beers with your dad. "And the only training I've ever had, if you want to call it training, was a few hours changing flowers into feathers and back with my gran fifteen years ago, and I feel a little. . . well, exposed. Unready. " I could maybe have said, assailable.

  "I see. " Con stared at the ugly door for a moment as if making up his mind, and then opened it. Inside were rows and rows of tiny drawers. I could feel the - well, it wasn't heat, and it wasn't a smell, and it wasn't tiny voices, but it was a little like all three together. There were dozens of things in those drawers and not an inert one in the lot. They were all yelling/secreting/radiating a kind of ME! ME! ME! like the jock kids in school when the coach is choosing teams. I wondered what the cupboard was made of. I didn't feel like touching it myself and seeing if it might tell me anything. I didn't like the grins on the faces of the satyrs.

  Con opened a drawer and lifted out a thin chain. The other voices/emissions subsided at once, some of them with a distinct grumble (or fart). The chain glimmered in the nonlight - the foxy-colored light of the fire didn't reach this far - it looked like opal, if there was a way to make flexible connecting loops out of opal. It was humming a kind of thin fey almost-tune; my mind, or my ear, kept trying to turn it into a melody, but it wouldn't quite go. Con poured it from one palm to the other - it looked fine as cobweb in his big hands - and then held it up again, spreading his fingers so that it hung in a near-circle. The almost-tune began to change. It would catch, like a tiny flaw tripping a recording, making it hesitate and skip; but each time it picked up again the tune had changed. It did this over and over as I listened, as Con held it up; and as I listened the strange, wavering nontune seemed to grow increasingly familiar, as if it were a noise like the purr of a refrigerator or the high faint whine of a TV with the sound turned off. Familiar: comfortable. Safe. I also felt, eerily, that the sound was becoming more familiar because it was somehow trying to become familiar: like the shape of a stranger at the other end of the street becomes your old friend so-and-so as it gets close enough for you to see their face and possibly that ratty old coat they should have thrown out years ago. This sibylline chain was approaching me. . . and dressing itself up as an old friend.

  It knew its job. By the time it drifted off into silence I was reaching for it as if it belonged to me. Which maybe it did. Con dropped it over my hands and it seemed
to stroke my skin as it slid down my fingers. I watched it gleaming for a moment - the gleam seemed to have a rhythm, like a heartbeat - and then I dropped it over my head. It disappeared under the collar of the black shirt, but I felt it lying against me, crossing the tips of the scar below my collarbones, resting in a curve over my heart.

  "Thank you," I said, falteringly. I knew a powerful piece of magic when I saw it and hung it round my neck, but I had never heard of anything quite like this. . . convergence; usually you had to make a terrific effort to match things up even a quarter so well as this. Of course what I didn't know about magic handling would fill libraries.

  Also, "thank you" seemed about as pathetic a response to such a marvel as anyone could make.

  "I thought it would be glad to go to you. "

  "Er - didn't you - "

  "No. My master was vexed when he discovered the necklet would not work for him nor any of our kind. This cupboard contains some of his other disappointments. "

  "There was a bit of a clamor, when you opened the doors," I said.

  "Yes. These are human things, and they have seen no human since they were brought here. " Pause. "They do not love being idle. Some of them are very powerful. I can restrain them, even if I cannot use them. I would offer them to you, if. . . "

  "If there was any indication I wouldn't make a total botch," I interrupted, "which there isn't. To the contrary, if anything. " The question of the existence of my demon taint, never far from the front of my mind these days despite serious competition from vampires and immediate death, resurfaced long enough to register that the "human things" had responded to me as human. Well, if they were comparing me to Con I was a shoo-in. I didn't know how long they'd been here, but a good guess was long enough to make them desperate. I touched the chain with my finger, and half-thought, half-imagined I heard a faint - the faintest of faint - hums. If I was going to say I'd heard it, I'd say it was a happy hum. But I wasn't going to say I'd heard it.

  "The Cup was my mistake. "

  "Allow me to point out that it had been a rather tiring evening already," I said testily, "before I met the damn. . . cauldron. And I wasn't exactly prepared. Nor was I exactly introduced. Even a master handler - which I am not - can be caught off guard. "

  "The necklet will allow you to find your way back here," said Con. "You may, if you wish, investigate these things further, having prepared yourself. "

  I laughed a small dry croaking laugh. "That kind of preparation takes decades of apprenticeship. Ruthless, singleminded, hair-raising apprenticeship. It also requires someone to be apprenticed to, which in my case I have not got, besides being at least fifteen years too old to start. " And possibly calamitously partblood.

  After a pause, Con said, "I too had to. . . invent much of my apprenticeship. A master with whom you cannot agree is sometimes worse than no master. "

  Then why did you stay? I thought.

  "There are few, I think, master handlers, who could have traveled the way you traveled this evening to come here, and lived. "

  My capacity for invention is flash hot stark, I thought. Sucker sunshade. Disembodied radar-reconnaissance. Not to mention Bitter Chocolate Death and Killer Zebras. Pity about the rest of me.

  "If you will accept advice from me I would suggest you not come that way again, except in direst need. "

  "Happy to promise that one," I said. "But don't find yourself in direst need again either, okay? Or even plain old bland low-level semi-sub-dire need. "

  "Ah. No," said Con. "I will promise as well. To the extent it is within my mandate. "

  He closed the cupboard. I thought, if I do get back here, for my first trick I'm going to transfer all that stuff out of that deeply repulsive cupboard, which I'm sure isn't making any of it rest any easier. Supposing I can find anything more suitable in this baroque fun-house.

  "We must be on our way. Dawn is a bare hour away. "

  "An hour?" I said. "You mean you're - this - is that close to - "

  My dismay was hardly flattering, but Con answered with his usual detachment: "Not in human geography. But the fact that you are here at all - by the way you came - and the necklet you now wear - you will be able to walk some of my shorter ways. "

  My heart sank. "You just told me not to use nowheresville again. "

  Con said, "I cannot travel that road any more than I can walk under the sun. I do not take you that way. "

  "Oh," I said. "Well. "

  I don't know how we came out above ground again, out into the ordinary night, with a little ordinary breeze and a few ordinary bats swooshing about. Bats. How quaint. I noticed they did not come from where we had come from, however. Wherever that was. I don't seem to recall coming out, like from a tunnel; the wilder, intenser darkness of Con's earth-place merely thinned and crumbled, and eventually we were walking on rough grass and turf. With bats skating overhead. I was uncomfortably reminded of my perfunctory clothing when the breeze showed a tendency to billow up inside the long black shirt, but I was so grateful to be breathing fresh air - and because I desperately wanted to be home - when Con took my hand I didn't instantly jerk it away from him again. At least he didn't offer to carry me. Even though I was barefoot again. It occurred to me that I had a pattern of being inappropriately dressed during my associations with Con.

  His shorter way was a little like stepping on stepping stones while the torrent foamed around your feet - in this case the torrent of that conventional reality I was so eager to return to - and threatening at any moment to surge over the edge and sweep you away. I almost certainly would have lost my balance without his hand: you had to look down to see where to put your feet, and reality careering past at Mach hundred and twelve is seriously dizzy-making, plus some of the stepping stones were dangerously slick, disconcertingly like ordinary stones in an ordinary stream, although I didn't want to think what they were slick with, nor what the equivalent of getting soaking wet might be if I fell off. It was less unnerving than the way I'd gone earlier tonight, as that way was less unnerving than where Aimil's cosmail had taken me, but it was still unnerving. Very.

  I wondered if traveling through nowheresville was part of the You will begin, now, I think, to read those lines of. . . power, governance, sorcery, as I can read them, that Con had predicted a month ago. But he'd said read. If this was reading I didn't want to know about doing.

  Then the stones seemed to get bigger and bigger and the torrent slowed and grew calm, and we were at the edge of Yolande's garden.

  I didn't notice him leave. I don't remember his dropping my hand. But as I recognized the shape of the house in the near-light of mundane night under the open sky, I realized I was alone.

  I remembered as I staggered up the porch steps, trying to avoid the creakiest ones, that I didn't have the key to my apartment. Again. At this rate I should start keeping a spare under a flowerpot for those nights I found myself doing something strange with Con while barefoot and unsuitably clothed. Maybe it was the necklet, but I put my hand over the keyhole and growled something, I don't know what, and heard the damn bolt click open. I also heard tiny ward voices chittering at me irritably, but they didn't try to stop me coming in. I rebolted the door tidily behind me.

  I didn't take his shirt off. I fell onto my bed and was asleep instantly.

  I half expected to wake up and find myself lying in a little pile of ashes, when the black vampire shirt disintegrated under the touch of the sun's rays; I more than half expected to wake up having had long, labyrinthine dream about Con with a background to match - labyrinthine, I mean. No again. (Although I remembered when I'd last woken up in my bed and hoped that what I remembered about something-strange-with-Con had only been an embarrassing dream. It hadn't been a dream that time either - and the things-that-weren't-dreams were by this showing getting more embarrassing. (Speaking of patterns I wanted to break soon. ) I did wake stiff as a plank from all my new scrapes and bruises, and with a crick in my neck
so severe I wasn't sure I was ever going to get my face facing frontward again. I looked over my shoulder at the little heap of abandoned clothing in front of the still-open balcony door as I stumbled into the bathroom and started running hot water for a bath. I'd been here before too, only last time it was the other vampires that had knocked me around.

  Be fair, I thought. I'm in a lot better shape than I was when I got home four and a half months ago.

  I didn't feel like being fair.

  For just a moment - for fewer than the ten seconds it had lasted when it happened - I remembered his mouth on mine, his naked body hot and sweating against mine -

  No. I put my head under the tap and let the water blast all such thoughts away. My hair needed shampooing anyway.

  The shirt, although it needed a wash, still looked pretty glamorous in daylight. Good quality material. Nice drape. Even if black wasn't my color. Although at the moment a lot of me was dark blue and purple, and it coordinated very well with that. I scowled at the mirror. My own fault for looking. The chain round my neck gleamed in daylight too. It looked more like gold this morning, but if I stirred it with a finger it had a queer iridescent quality not at all like real gold, not that I had much acquaintance with the stuff. I had always favored plastic and rhinestones.

  I took the shirt off carefully and put it with the other laundry. Was it natural fibers, I wondered, did it need to be dry-cleaned? I had somehow neglected to ask Con about these crucial details. Borrowing shirts from ordinary guys wasn't this complicated. For one thing, ordinary-guy shirts usually had washing instruction tags in them. This one didn't have any tags.

  I took my bath and wondered if I was going to make it in to the coffeehouse for the lunch shift.

  I wasn't anything like as bad off as I had been last spring. I was just sulky. I only took one bath. By the time the water had cooled from scalding to merely hot I could almost turn my head again.

  I left the rainbow chain round my neck during my bath. I didn't want to take it off somehow, and I doubted that bubble bath was going to tarnish it. What I did do was introduce it to my other talismans. I hadn't a clue how to clean up after last night's magic - none of the words my gran had taught me seemed at all suitable, I felt kind of put off candles and herbs, and I wasn't in a very thank you mood. But I knew I should be doing something. This was a compromise.

  As a solemn rite it wasn't much: I was cross-legged on the very rucked-up sheets of my bed, and still dripping from the bath, wrapped in an assortment of towels. I had pulled my little knife from the pants pocket of the trousers on the floor, and took the mysterious seal out of the bed-table drawer. I smoothed a bit of pillow and laid them there. Then, gently, I lifted the chain off over my head, and dropped it down around them.

  I don't know what I was expecting. It just seemed like the thing to do. Knife, meet necklace. Seal, meet necklace. Necklace, meet knife and seal. I suspect we are going into some kind of fracas together, and that you are my co-conspirators - you and that underground guy - and I want to make sure you're all on speaking terms with one another before I ask you to guard my back.

  Or something.

  It was too late in the year for direct sunlight to touch my pillow at that time of day. So I don't know what happened. But there was a flash like - well, like a ray of sunshine, but it was some ray: like a golden sword, like a Christian saint's vision of glory. It landed on my talismans with an almost audible whump, like the king's grip had slipped and he'd clobbered the knight on the shoulder instead of merely tapping gently and dubbing him Sir Thing.

  And the pillow caught fire.

  I sat there with steam suddenly boiling off my wet towels, my mouth open, staring. And my brain had gone on vacation without advance warning, because I reached into the fire, closed my hands around my three talismans, gathered them together, and pulled them out of the fire.

  The fire went out. The pillow lay there, charred and smoking.

  My hands felt a little hot. No big deal. When I opened my hands there were three overlapping red marks on the palms: one long thin almost rectangular oval, for the knife, one smaller shorter fatter oval for the seal, and a scarlet curl over the ball of one thumb, a slightly ragged thread-width stripe, for the chain. None of the objects themselves now felt any more than human-body-temperature warm. None of them looked a trace different than they had a minute before. Before they had been set on fire by persons or forces unknown.

  "Oh," I said. My voice quavered. "Oh my. "

  I made it in for the lunch shift all right. I didn't want to stay home alone with myself. I hung the chain round my neck again, and put the knife and the seal in two separate pockets. I didn't feel like leaving anything in the bed-table drawer any more. We'd bonded or something - speaking of weird bonds. Our affiliation had been confirmed by setting one pillow on fire. I put the pillow in the trash and the sheets in the washing machine. My sheets had never been so clean as they'd been in the last few months. I hardly got them on again before something else happened and I was feverishly ripping them off and stuffing them in the wash with double amounts of soap and all the "extra" buttons pushed: extra wash, extra rinse, extra water, extra spin, extra protection against things that go bump in the night. Unfortunately I never could find that last button. Some day soon I'd buy another pillow and a new set of pillowcases.

  Turned out once I was dressed in long sleeves and a high neck and jeans you didn't see the bruises much. There was one on my jawline that was going to be visible as soon as I tied my hair back and a gouge down my forearm that I decided I had to put a bandage on even if this made it look worse than it was. Couldn't be helped. You can't ooze in a public bakery any more than you can cook anything without rolling your sleeves up first. I'd worry what to tell Mel later.

  Paulie was glad to see me. It had been a busy morning, but then it was always a busy morning. "We're full up with SOFs," he said. I grunted. I'd seen them on the way in, glancing through the door to the front, having thoughtfully come in the side way for staff only (and hungry derelicts), just in case of things like SOFs. I put a clean apron on and tied my hair up at lightning speed (lightning bolt, golden sword, Mach hundred and twelve), threw a little flour in my face to camouflage the bruise on my jaw, and was up to my elbows in pastry by the time Pat had drifted apparently aimlessly into the bakery. I hadn't seen him on my way in; he'd been moving pretty fast himself if they'd called him over from HQ. "A word with you on your next break?" he said.

  "I've only just got here," I said, smudging flour and butter and confectioner's sugar together briskly.

  "Whenever," he said, loitering.

  "It'll be a couple of hours," I said quellingly. I could feel Paulie raising his eyebrows behind my back: Pat was usually a friend with privileges. That had been before I'd found out my loyalties were not merely divided, they had hacked me in two and were disappearing over the horizon in opposite directions.

  "Whatever you say, ma'am," he said, saluting, although not very convincingly. "I don't suppose there are any cinnamon rolls left?"

  "No," I said.

  "Walnut sticky bun?" said Paulie. "Blueberry muffin, pumpkin muffin, orange, carrot and oat muffin, pear gingerbread, honeycake?"

  "One of each," said Pat, and disappeared.

  Paulie hadn't been with us long enough yet to pretend to be impervious to the sincere flattery of people gorging themselves on the stuff you had made. He rubbed his face with a sugary hand to disguise the grin and went off to load up a plate and shout for Mary to take it out front.

  I was tempted not to admit when I went on break but I was having to do enough lying just plugging through my days - and nights - and didn't want to get too used to it. It was like I didn't want to forget the difference between daylight and nighttime: and both my funny eyes and my funny new life-and-undead style seemed to be prodding me relentlessly in that direction. Not funny.

  My sunshine-self. My tree-self. My deer-self. Didn't we outnumb
er the dark self? My hands patted the two pockets that contained the knife and the seal, leaving two more smudges on my apron.

  I took the apron off and washed my hands and made myself a cup of tea and went out front. Pat had either come back or was still there. Paulie's piled-up plate two and a half hours ago hadn't been enough; he was now eating Lemon Lust pastry bars and Killer Zebras. Any normal human ought to have a gut he'd have to carry around on a wheelbarrow, the way he ate. This had crossed my mind once or twice before, being many years acquainted with Pat's eating habits, but he was SOF, you know? So he got a lot of exercise and had a high metabolism rate. I wondered again what kind of demon he was. If he was a rubberfoot, which came in blue sometimes, he could walk up walls, for example, which must burn a lot of calories. I nodded to him and went out to sit on the wall of Mrs. Bialosky's flower bed. The sun was shining.

  He followed me. "Listen to the news last night?" he said.


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