Sunshine, p.22
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       Sunshine, p.22

           Robin McKinley
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Chapter 22


  Pat took a deep breath. "Ma'am, Milenkovic's field notes clearly record - "

  Jesse was arguing with the guys at the backup combox. I wanted to hear what was going on there but I didn't want to appear interested in anything while the goddess was still staring at me. I didn't think she was listening to Pat's dogged description of poor Milenkovic's misfortunes. I concentrated on looking stunned and blank. And maybe stupid. I was a marginal high school grad who baked bread for a living. Intellect was not a big feature. Hold that thought. Behind the blank look I was testing the memory of what had happened while I was plugged in. Had I found anything, or had I been repelled before I could make a fix? I wasn't going to stand up and make a directional cast as I had done the last time in this office, not with the goddess watching. But it felt a little. . . directional. And I was afraid if I didn't try it soon I might lose it, if there was anything to lose.

  Aimil moved into my line of vision. She was looking at me too, but her look said, Can I help?

  I stood up slowly. I felt shaky anyway, but I made myself look shakier yet. Aimil rushed to take my elbow. As I moved, I felt it. . .

  Yes. I'd found something. And I hadn't lost it yet.

  I think Aimil felt the shiver run through me, and she probably guessed why. "Rae's pretty knocked around," Aimil said, and I recognized her placate-the-inquisitor voice: one of the area library bosses got that voice, and when she was in residence at Aimil's branch library Aimil found special projects across town to attend to. "May I take her home?"

  "Tell me, Rae," said the goddess. "Do you think you discovered anything useful this evening?"

  "I don't know," I said carefully. "It was over pretty suddenly, and now I have a terrific headache. "

  "Usually," said the goddess, "the sooner the interview after the experience, the more information is obtained. "

  I tried to look as if I would like to be cooperative. "I'm sorry," I said. "It was like I was falling into chaos, and then I went over backward in the chair and the combox exploded. "

  The goddess' radar was telling her I was holding something back. With a great effort I raised my eyes again and met hers. There was no way I was going to try to read any shadows on her face: it was as much as I could do to look at her at all. What the hell was this? Some kind of wild personal warding system? I'd never met anything like it.

  We stared at each other. She wasn't my boss - and she wasn't a vampire - and life with my mother had taught me not to intimidate easily, although this last took some effort, and my head was spinning even worse than. . . Uh. What? She was trolling me. . .

  This was strictly illegal: a violation of my personal rights, and anything an illegal fishing expedition found was automatically forfeit too, in theory, but once you know something you know it, don't you? There is a license you can get to do a mind search under certain circumstances but there is a list of prior requirements as long as the global council's charter - besides that, you need to be a magic handler particularly talented in etherfo interchange - and in practice there are only a few specialist cops and specialist lawyers who get one. And likely some SOFs: but if the goddess had the license, she was misusing it now.

  "Hey," I said, and put up my arm, as if to ward off a physical blow. Trolling isn't an exact science for even the best searcher, and the searchee has to hold still. Big police stations have a mind-search chair as standard equipment, and a medic standing by with a shot of stuff that on the street is called delete, which makes you hold still all right and you may not move real well again for a long time afterward.

  I was pretty sure she hadn't had the chance to pull anything out of me but I sure didn't like her trying. I also thought I understood why those I disconcertingly found myself thinking of as my gang - Pat and Jesse and Aimil and Theo - looked so jumpy.

  "I am so sorry," she said, not sorry at all. "I am accustomed to assisting recall in our agents. I did it automatically. "

  The hell you did, lady, I didn't say. You were hoping I wouldn't notice. I did say, "Good night. If I remember anything, I'll let you know. "

  She would have liked to stop me, but perhaps she didn't quite dare. I had noticed what she'd tried to do, and an accusation of illegal mind search would be embarrassing to SOF even if they denied it convincingly. It occurred to me that she must really, really want anything I could tell her, to have taken the chance. Was she that flash on vampires or was there something else going on? Silly me. Of course there was something else going on. If she was just megahot on vampires, she and Pat would be buddies, and they weren't.

  It also occurred to me that she couldn't have pulled anything out of me, because if she had, she'd've found a way to hold me, and she was letting me go.

  I turned very carefully to the door, wanting to get through it before she changed her mind. I also didn't want to shake my fix loose till I'd had a chance to explore it. I felt it swimming, the way a compass needle swims as you turn the casing.

  Aimil clung solicitously to my elbow. "My car's in back," she said.

  We were halfway down the final corridor when we heard someone running up behind us: Pat. "I've left Jesse trying to deal with the goddess," he said. "Sorry, Sunshine, can you move any faster? I want us all out of here before she thinks of a reason to yank us back in. "

  They hustled me along between them. Pat was holding his wounded arm pressed against his body, but his grasp on me was strong enough. Once I was outdoors I felt the fix run through me again. "I have to stop," I said. Pat didn't argue, but he glanced over his shoulder.

  We stood at the top of the little flight of stairs into the parking lot. I took a deep breath and tried to settle myself, wait for the compass needle to stop waving back and forth. It didn't want to stop waving back and forth. A void needle will presumably be confused by moving around in ordinary reality, the way an ordinary compass needle will be confused by steel beams and magnetic fields. I hoped there weren't any steel-beam and magnetic-field equivalents nearby. Settle, I told it. I haven't lost it, I thought, please don't tell me I've lost it. . .

  "Um," said Aimil. "I don't know if this might be of any help to you," and she pulled a bit of exploded combox from her pocket and offered it to me.

  "You darling," I said. Sympathetic magic is never the best and is usually the crudest, but when you wanted grounding there is nothing better, and any damn fool with a drop of magic-handler blood six generations back can tap it. I held the scrap of plastic in both hands.

  This time I didn't have to turn around. I felt it slamming in over my right shoulder - no, through it - toward my heart. Like a stake into a vampire.

  I dropped the bit of combox and threw myself away from its line of flight. The chain round my neck and the knife and seal in my pockets blazed up again - and I seemed to have a friction burn across the front of my right shoulder where the whatever-it-was had grazed me in passing - it felt like someone had taken an electric sander to me.

  Pat caught me, or I might have fallen down the steps onto the pavement. "Wow," he said, and almost dropped me, as if he'd caught hold of something burning; but he was a true SOF, or he had his damsel-rescuing hat on that evening, or he was more worried about me than about the skin of his hands or the stitches in his shoulder. He flinched but his grip tightened.

  "Sorry," I said. "That was a little of what blew the combox. " Aimil shook her head, slowly went to where the bit of broken combox was still rocking on its curved edge where it had landed, bent down even more slowly, and picked it up. Brave woman. But it wasn't the sort of clue we could afford to leave lying around: everybody knows about sympathetic magic, which would include all the goddess' spies.

  Pat rubbed his hands down the sides of his legs. "Shiva wept," he said. "Sunshine, you okay?"

  "Yeah," I said. "More or less. " I looked in the direction that the invisible stake had come from. No Town again. I looked back. "Your stitches are bleeding. "

  "Did you get anythi

  "No Town. We knew that. "

  Pat expelled his breath in an angry sigh. "So we blew out the com system, destroyed a lot of equipment, and got the goddess of pain on our butts, and all we know is that it's No Town. Bloody hell. "

  I glanced at Aimil, who was valiantly not saying "I told you so. "

  "I'm sorry," I said.

  "Not your fault, Sunshine. I'm sure we're on to something with you, we just have to figure out how to use it. Some day we're going to cruise you around and see if it is No Town at all, and if we can get some kind of angle on it. "

  I thought this sounded like trying to find the epicenter while you're falling into the cracks in the earth, but I didn't say anything.

  "But that's the long way and I'm impatient. Damn. John's a com whiz. I should have asked him before. He could take on the goddess' little waiters; I just thought Sanchez - well. It plays as it plays, and the goddess is going to be watching our every move now. "

  "Who is she?" I said.

  "The goddess of pain? Sunshine, you're slipping. She's second in command here at div HQ, but we keep hoping she'll get promoted out of regional and out of our hair. Jack Demetrios - he's the boss - he's okay. "

  I did know that. But I didn't know how to ask about the goddess' weird vibes. "Does she have any - er - unconventional personal wards or anything?"

  Pat looked at me in that too-alert way I didn't like. "You mean other than the fact that her walking into a room makes any sane person want to run out of it? You mean she's got that effect as a switch on her control board? Hey, Sunshine, what are you picking up?"

  I shook my head. "Nothing. Too much happened tonight is all. "

  "She tried to troll you, didn't she?"

  "Yes," I said.

  "But you blocked her," said Pat. "Thank the listening gods. I'm glad you blocked her anyway, but I always like seeing the goddess screw up. "

  I had some trouble convincing them to let me drive myself home. I had a lot of trouble convincing them. Aimil knows me well enough to know to stop arguing eventually, but I left Pat scowling and furious. But he wasn't scowling and furious as hard as he should have been. That meant that they already had something planted out at Yolande's to check up on me. Hell.

  The Wreck was in a good mood. We got home at a steady thirty-five mph and it didn't diesel for more than fifteen seconds after I turned the key off. I fumbled in the side pocket for something to write on and something to write with: all the usual glove compartment things had got crowded out of the glove compartment by charms. I scribbled, Yolande, help. SOF is monitoring here for Other activity. S, and stuck it under her door. I tried to listen for any tickers in the neighborhood but that wasn't in my job description and I didn't know what to listen for.

  I dragged myself upstairs. I hadn't cleaned up all that well from last night, so it was easy to fish out a few wax chips from the candles Yolande had given me and dump them into a smudge bowl and light a candle under them. I waited till the chips began to grow soft, and I could smell, faintly, their aroma. Then I closed my eyes and aligned myself. . .

  I didn't want to go anywhere. I just wanted to leave a message. The chain around my neck began to feel warm. Only a little warm.

  . . . Sunshine?. . .

  . . . Found. . .

  . . . Tomorrow. . .

  . . . Beware. . . SOF here. . .

  It was a good thing my hands knew what to do because the rest of me was barely responsive to automatic pilot the next day, or anyway the gear assembly needed its chain tightened up several links. I got through the morning, the Wreck took me home, I fell asleep several steps from the top of the stairs but my feet carried me the rest of the way into my bedroom and I woke up at three, lying slantways across my unmade bed, my feet hanging over one end, my cheek painfully creased and my bruised jaw made sorer by a wad of bedspread. The sin of untidiness chastised.

  "Oh, ow," I said, rolling over. Bath time. When in doubt, take a bath. My family (especially those of them who remembered clearly what it had been like to share a one-bathroom house with me) every year at Winter Solstice give me enough bubble bath to last me till next Winter Solstice. I wasn't going to make it this year though. I always got through a lot of bubble bath, but this year was in a category of its own.

  When I was dressed I went out onto my balcony to brush my wet hair in the sunlight. Yolande was in the garden, cutting off deadheads. She looked up at the sound of my doors opening. "Good afternoon," she said. "May I make you a cup of tea?"

  "Love it," I said. "Give me five minutes. "

  When I came downstairs her door was open. I closed it behind me and made my way to her kitchen. My apartment was one of the attics; hers was the whole of the ground floor, and it was a big house. I didn't linger to stare, but I found myself looking around at everything I had seen before with the new idea that any of it might be possible secret wards; and it did seem to me that the shadows lay differently on certain things than on others, and some of those certain things were pretty unexpected. Could that faded, curling postcard that said A Souvenir of Portland leaning drunkenly against a candlestick be anything but a worthy candidate for a housecleaning purge?

  Yolande was fitting the tea cozy over the pot when I came in. There were cups on the table. I knew where her cookie plates lived, so I got one down and put my offerings on it: chocolate chip hazelnut, Jamdandies, Cashew Turtles, plus butterscotch brownies and half a dozen muffins. (Fortunately I hadn't landed on the bakery bag when I fell asleep. ) Technically we aren't supposed to take anything home from the coffeehouse till the end of the day, but I'd like to see anyone try and stop me.

  "It is ironic," she said, "that SOF, our white knights against the darkness, are causing you such bother. But I think I can guarantee they will not notice your friend if he comes again. You will forgive me if I made my obstructions specific again to him only. Were you successful the other night?"

  I didn't mean to laugh, but a sort of yelp escaped me. "Yes. If anything too successful. "

  Yolande said, "I'm afraid that is sometimes the inevitable result of the possession of real power. That it is stronger than you are, and not very biddable. "

  "I don't think it's my so-called power that's the problem," I said bleakly. "It's the trouble it gets me into. "

  Yolande pulled my cup toward her, settled the tiny silver sieve over it, and poured. Before I met her I had thought you made tea by throwing a tea bag in a mug and adding hot water. Four years ago I'd convinced Charlie to inaugurate loose tea in individual teapots at Charlie's. I told him that a coffeehouse that sold champagne by the glass could stretch to loose tea. Our postlunch afternoon crowd had instantly ballooned. Must be more Albion exiles in New Arcadia than we thought. Albion had been hit very badly by the Wars.

  "I doubt your interpretation," said Yolande. "If I may be blunt, I don't think you'd still be alive if you were a mere pawn. "

  "I know this is pathetic of me, but sometimes I think I'd rather be a pawn. Okay, a live pawn. "

  Yolande was smiling. She had that inward remembering look. "Responsibility is always a burden," she said.

  "Next you're going to tell me it doesn't get any easier. "

  "Quite right. But you do grow more accustomed to it. "

  "Wardskeepers have this whole rigorous training thing. So you aren't doing anything - stuff doesn't happen till you're ready for it. "

  She laughed, and it was a real laugh. "Only in theory. Tell me, what were your first cinnamon rolls like? And didn't the recipe look simple and pure and beautiful on the page? And the instructions your teacher gave you, before he left you to get on with it, were perfectly clear and covered everything?"

  I smiled reminiscently, stirring sugar into my tea. "They were little round bricks. I still don't know how I did it. They got heavier. They can't have weighed more than the flour I put into them, you know? But I swear they did. There's a family myth that Charlie used them in the wall he was b
uilding around Mom's rose garden. I wouldn't be surprised. "

  "The first time I cut a ward sign - cutting a sign is your first big step up from drawing all the basic ones, over and over and over, and you long for it - I managed to wreck the workshop. Fortunately my master believed my talent was going to be worth it. If we all survived my apprenticeship. "

  "I blew out the ovens once, but that wasn't entirely my fault. . . Okay. Point taken. But I don't think anyone knows how to travel through nowheresville. "

  "Then I hope you are taking good notes, to make teaching your students easier. "

  "You are a hard woman," I said.

  She leaned forward and lightly touched the chain around my neck. "That is a potent thing. You have others, I think, but this is new. It has a great sense of darkness around it, and yet it is a clear dark. Like a bit of jewelry in a black velvet case. A gift from your friend, I imagine. "

  I nodded, trying not to be unnerved by her perceptiveness.

  "My master would be most interested, but he lives on the other side of the country. "

  "Your master?" I said, startled out of politeness. "But you're - "

  "Old," she said composedly. "Yes. Older perhaps than you think. Magic handling has that effect. Surely you know that?"

  "I thought it was a fairy tale. Like pots of gold and three wishes. "

  "It is not a very reliable effect, and ordinary ward- and spell-crafters won't notice much difference. But to those of us who soak ourselves deeply in a magical source, it can have profound consequences. This is not a chosen thing, you know. Or it chooses you, not the other way around. "

  "I always thought my grandmother looked very young," I said slowly. "I haven't seen her since I was ten. When I was in my teens I decided it was just that she had long dark hair and didn't look like other people's grandmothers. "

  "I never knew your grandmother, although I knew some of the other Blaises at one time. But my guess is that she was much older than you had any idea of. "

  "Was," I said. "None of it got her through the Voodoo Wars. Or my father either. "

  "I'm sorry. "

  "I don't know they're dead. But I can't believe my gran wouldn't have let me know. . . " My voice trailed off. "I. . . I have been my mother's family's kid all my life - even when we were still living with my dad, I think - till four months ago. Almost five months ago. It's a shock to the system. "

  She looked at me thoughtfully. "Consider the possibility that you had to be a certain age to bear it, when it finally came to you. "

  "There must have been an easier way. "

  She laughed again. "There is always a better way, in hindsight. "

  I said, trying to smile, "The cousins I know - my mother's sisters' kids - are married by the time they're my age. The younger ones do stuff like play varsity sports or collect stamps or dollhouse furniture. The two in college, Anne wants to be a marine biologist and William wants to teach primary school. It's like the Other side doesn't exist. Even Charlie, who you'd think of anyone would remember, says he'd almost forgotten who my dad was. " I paused. "I don't even know how my parents met. It doesn't seem very likely, does it? That Miss Drastically Normal should fall for Mr. All That Creepy Stuff. All I know is that my mom worked at a florist's before she married my dad.

  "What happened to the safety net, you know? If I was going to turn out this way, why didn't I get apprenticed? Why didn't my gran leave a codicil in her will asking someone to keep an eye on me? She taught me to transmute. She knew I'd inherited something. "

  Yolande didn't say anything for several minutes while I sat there trying not to be embarrassed for my outburst. "I don't believe in fate," she said at last. "But I do believe in. . . loopholes. I think a lot of what keeps the world going is the result of accidents - happy or otherwise - and taking advantage of these. Perhaps your gran guessed you might be one of those loopholes. Perhaps she left a codicil in her will saying to leave you alone at all costs. What if you'd been apprenticed, and learned that there is no way through nowheresville?"

  I couldn't settle down to read that evening - anything about the Others made me twitchy, anything else was so irrelevant as to be maddening. Child of Phantoms, another favorite comfort-read for over a decade, failed to hold me. Reading was of course a problem with my dark vision getting in the way, but in fact flat black type on a flat white page was easier to deal with than almost anything else. I did pretty well so long as I remembered to keep my head and the page perfectly still; if I didn't, the print jumped sick-makingly into three dimensions. It was like the advertising about some latest thriller or other: This story is so exciting it will leap off the page at you! For me it did. This is disconcerting when you're reading Professional Baking Quarterly, which I usually tried to do. It made me feel I had some of the right attitude, and the letters page was always good for a laugh. Mom renewed my subscription every year as a supportive-maternal present. Surprise.

  I did shut myself into the closet for half an hour with my combox. I had to screw up my courage to hit the "live" button. But nothing happened except what is supposed to happen. Whew. Perhaps the com cosmos isn't so homogenous after all. I knew that the official line is that the comcos is entirely a human creation, but then the official human line would be that, wouldn't it? And if there is a lot of vampire engineering in it, that would help to explain both where a lot of vampire money came from and why every authority on the planet - business, ecosyn, social service, governmental, all of them - is droolingly paranoid about vampires. However, if my combox was still in one piece and the comcos equivalent of the Big Ugly Thing That Ate Schenectady hadn't burst out of the screen and seized me, there must still be enough human input to the workings of the comcos to keep it. . . heterogeneous.



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